I spent a week earlier in the summer in San Francisco, exploring the burgeoning Smart Home technology space, trying to get my head around what’s really happening under the surface beyond the headline-grabbing fundraising activities of companies like Ring (a next-generation doorbell company that raised c.$100m) and emerging battles for the space amongst the big tech boys (including Google’s $3.4 billion acquisition of Nest and the launch of Amazon’s Alexa).
What was most obvious from my travels is that the Smart Home technology space is definitely *busy* - in an exciting way. I say exciting, as I’ve been involved in Smart Home technology for about 20 years (via my family company AMCO, which specialises in alarm monitoring) and the rate of innovation and disruption in the space over the last few years has been impressive compared to the years before. Like much technology, this disruption has been driven by the proliferation of smartphones, increase in broadband power and the shift away from home ownership to renting.
From my various conversations in San Francisco, here are the main insights I took away:
- The platform / device divide: as with most evolving technology spaces (e.g. the mobile space), Smart Home technology has evolved into a mix of platforms and devices. So as with mobile where we have platforms like iOS and Android and a giant mix of apps that sit on top of these platforms, with Smart Home technology you have a split between Smart Home platforms (e.g. Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s OnHub, Apple’s HomeKit, British Gas’ Hive) along with a myriad of devices that are designed to work on top of these platforms (e.g. Nest’s smoke detector, August’s smart locks and Zuli smart plugs).
- The market’s still really early & fragmented: the difference between mobile tech and Smart Home tech is that the Smart Home space is still really immature. A reflection of this is the multitude of different platforms (you can easily count 20 without trying) compared to the evolved space of mobile where there are essentially only two (Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS). The reason for the multitude of Smart Home platforms is the fragmentation due to the history / background of the space, with a range of different companies / markets (e.g. security, energy, entertainment, home commerce) being brought together under this unified Smart Home banner. The challenge of working in this fragmented space for device makers is to work out which platform to back and build support for your device on, which is tricky when there are so many to pick from.
- Security is the killer for market demand (at the moment): speaking to one of my contacts in San Francisco he flagged up the fact that home security had become the biggest *product market fit* driver for the whole of the Smart Home industry. The point being that consumers see a real need for home security, but would question the need for automated lights or curtains or entertainment systems. And if you look at which businesses are attracting the biggest investments and gaining the greatest market traction it’s Smart Home businesses focused on home security like Nest / Canary / Ring.
- Beware of the power of the stomach: out of the tech gorillas I’m most fascinated by Amazon’s Smart Home play that is separately based around the Dash button and Alexa platform. Unlike a company like Apple which anchors its products and consumer interaction with the virtual and entertainment world, Amazon’s relationship is mostly in the real / physical-goods world; and its the real world that Smart Home technologies bring the most value to. With Amazon starting with their Dash buttons, there’s a clear market demand for their simple Smart Home tech driven by consumers’ stomachs (i.e. the need to re-order food - and other products) giving signs that Amazon has a good chance of scaling the first iteration of their Smart Home tech via *stomach-led demand*, highlighting that there are other emerging market needs for Smart Home tech outside of security.
- Is *home data* the real battle ground?: Google buying DropCam was a big surprise for me, and one I questioned given the size of the cheque (c.$400 million). The DropCam investment along with the Nest investment very much makes sense within Google’s data-led business focus, and highlighted the fact that Google is not after your online data but also your home data i.e. they’re not just interested in what you’re doing online, but also what you’re doing offline - in your home. Home data is also seemingly what Amazon is after; similar to Google, Amazon knows pretty much all your shopping habits online, they now want to extend their tentacles into your home. Making use / sense of your home data obviously has a whole load of benefits for home-owners, yet there are obvious uncomfortable privacy issues which ride alongside these benefits.
Perhaps the most telling moment of my one week Smart Home technology whirlwind tour, came when sat in San Francisco International airport watching FoxNews play out over the bar TV screens I was curious to see 2 out of the 5 commercials were for Smart Home products (August and Canary). Whether this was random chance I don’t know, but it certainly reinforced how far Smart Home technology has come in the US market and how it’s no doubt about to scale globally - at speed. For me and my colleagues at AMCO the question is what to bet on next, and how fast to move; something we’re working on . . .
[Thanks to Flickr for the photo above]