Brillo vs HomeKit vs the rest: Who will win the battle for your home?

We pit the big beasts of the connected smart home against each other

Magazines have been banging on about smart homes since the 1930s, but here in 2015 few of us even know how to set the timer on the oven. That's finally set to change, though: Google, Apple and a host of electronics firms are here to make home automation happen.

Google Brillo's platform – essentially Android for your house – was unveiled at Google I/O back in June and Apple's version, HomeKit, was shown off way back in 2014.

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It seems the two tech giants are about to face off in yet another area of our lives but they're not alone. Samsung and a host of startups also have designs on being the bedrock of your smart home, bringing together the scores of disparate products and making them work together. But what will they do and what will reign supreme? Read on to find out.

Who's doing what?

There are lots of home automation systems and standards out there, but to date they've largely involved individual companies working on proprietary and incompatible technologies. That means limited scope and fairly high prices.

The new breed want to connect everything to everything as simply and cheaply as possible, and there are four key platforms: HomeKit from Apple, Brillo from Google, SmartThings from Samsung and Wink, a new startup that unites multiple standards. There's also OpenHab, which is an open source project that's likely to connect devices to some or all of these platforms.

Who's on board?

Brillo is so new that the only firm officially on board is the Google-owned Nest, whose Works With Nest programme connects devices from the likes of Philips, August smart locks and various smart plug providers.

Apple's HomeKit isn't much older, but the partners already include Ecobee and Honeywell for temperature control, Schlage automated locks, Philips' Hue lighting, MyQ garage doors, Insteon for a range of home automation devices, Incipio, iDevices and iHome plug sockets, Elgato Eve and Blue Maestro Tempo sensors, and Withings cameras.

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SmartThings was snapped up by Samsung and claims to be compatible with more connected products than any other smart home company. In addition to Samsung products, partners include Belkin, Honeywell, Sonos, Yale, Logitech and Osram.

Wink may be a startup, but it has an impressive list of partners already including Philips, Honeywell and GE with over 100 supported products. More interestingly, it also has the support of Amazon, Home Depot and other big retailers.

How do they work?

Apple's HomeKit and Google's Brillo are new platforms, so the idea is that you'll buy a whole bunch of HomeKit or Brillo devices, add them to your network and control them with your phone. You'll be able to add non-supported devices with a bridge, which effectively translates between HomeKit/Brillo and non-compatible devices, but the emphasis is on the new standard. You'll be able to buy hubs that connect everything together - a revamped Apple TV for HomeKit and most likely a Nest device for Brillo - but hubs aren't essential.

Hubs are essential for Wink and SmartThings, because their goal is to unite devices across multiple standards. They both support the Z-Wave and Zigbee standards, with the Wink hub also working with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi while the SmartThings hub connects to your wireless router.

What's the down sides?

One of the dangers here is lock-in, where embracing a particular standard means staying with it forever: on past form, Apple isn't likely to invest much effort in making other firms' standards play nice with HomeKit - for example, it won't let Nest devices join the HomeKit party via Wi-Fi, citing security concerns. That will no doubt help protect the purity of Apple's vision, but it's likely to keep prices high and limit choice too.

Google's vision is likely to result in more, cheaper devices, but there are potential issues there too: Google's Android has virtually zero presence in the enterprise market because Android phone manufacturers take forever to push out security updates, if they push them out at all; fancy leaving everything in your home open to hacking because the firm that made your plug sockets couldn't be bothered updating older kit?

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That same issue hangs over Samsung SmartThings and Wink too: while supporting multiple standards from a wide range of firms is a great thing, it could also mean more potential vulnerabilities. We already know that if you connect something to the internet, sooner or later somebody will try to hack it - recent examples include Jeep Cherokees and Smart TVs, the latter of which have been used as spam relays - and the more devices you have connected, the more potential points of failure there will be.

There's also your privacy to think about. Apple has a strong pro-privacy approach, but Google's entire business is based on data mining, Samsung recently got into hot water over its smart TVs listening in on people's conversations and Wink is an unknown quantity privacy-wise.

When can I buy them?

Smart Things hubs, starter kits and sensors are available now, and the Wink hub and Wink relay controller are on sale now too. HomeKit devices are slowly starting to arrive, although we'd expect that to remain a trickle until the Apple TV is revamped later this year. As for Brillo, it's just been announced and its Weave communications standard hasn't been finalised, so even late 2015 might be a bit optimistic.

If you're absolutely desperate to connect everything to everything right now, the choice really boils down to Wink or SmartThings. HomeKit's barely gotten off the ground and Brillo's in the coming-soon category.

So which is best?

That's a good question, and the answer really depends on how many manufacturers end up supporting each platform. We suspect Apple will have the nicest system, Google the biggest, with Wink and SmartThings doing interesting things for comparatively smaller audiences. But it's a new and fast moving sector, so there's everything to play for.


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