The Internet of Things is a burgeoning industry that seemed like it was going to take off several years ago, but the hubbub has since died. That doesn't mean the interest is gone though - rather no one really knows what to do with all their smart devices.
Take for example, Apple HomeKit or Nest, or Samsung's SmartThings platforms. They're all ready and available - but not quite. Most products still require you to download third party apps just to connect to HomeKit in order to use Siri.
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Physical hubs are available but that means you'll need yet another piece of hardware in your already crowded smart home. Essentially, there's no glue holding these products together - at least not one that's good enough to overcome the saturated market.
That's where Yonomi comes in. The app wants to quiet the smart home static by bringing in one simple system so all of your gadgets have their own place to call home. We spoke with Yonomi co-founder and CEO Kent Dickson to figure out why there's no solid platform, and learned how the company plans on changing the smart home space.
The smart home problem
The Yonomi app was released on Android first then iOS last July. The company itself has only been active a little over two years but the team immediately saw they'd have their work cut out for them.
How do we one, make the value of the whole greater than the sum of the parts?
Dickson, along with two other co-founders decided that the time was right to jump into smart homes, but the question was how.
"The connected home is coming to fruition and it's coming now," said Dickson.
"But it's not coming in the form that's a prepackaged solution. What the mass market's clearly going to see is great single point products starting to arrive one at a time - like a Nest thermostat, a Sonos speaker, a smart door lock.
"They'll come one at a time and you'll adopt those things because you like them and they do something really amazing for you. Then over time, you'll suddenly have one, two, three, four devices or wearables in your home, in your car, on your body, and they'll all individually be great. But they won't work together."
It was clear that there wasn't a unifying system letting all your new tech talk to each other. Dickson believes that instead of simplifying our lives, the devices are further complicating them, thus the company was born.
"Now we have the two or five things to pay attention to, or to program and to interact with," Dickson tells us.
"How do we one, make the value of the whole greater than the sum of the parts? And two, massively simplify living with these devices?
"That was the premise of the company - how do we create value from all these products and how do we simplify peoples' lives."
Why hubs are duds
The easiest path towards creating a smart home system is a physical piece of hardware to connect your smart lightbulbs, smart blinds, and so on to your phone. That's why there are so many hub options. But Yonomi didn't want that.
"There are some advantages - if you're an engineer, the obvious thing to do is build another piece of hardware with a bunch of radios in it and processing power dedicated," Dickson tells us.
"It's a wonderful way to do it but it has all these costs and complexities for the user, not to the mention eventual obsolescence."
More hardware also complicates an already confusing system. Dickson said average consumers don't need more "stuff" in their lives. They need an assistant to help them sort through it all to make meaningful connections.
"We looked around and thought, 'Surely someone's got to be solving this, right?' The only thing we saw were a bunch of companies making hubs. Physical router types of devices that someone would have to purchase and set up, and configure all the rules and program all the things together.
"We thought that's a great solution for a geek or home automation enthusiast but it's a lousy solution for my mom - my mom's never going to do that. So how do we actually reach not just the early adopters but the mass market?"
The clear choice was through tech that nearly everyone has in their pocket: the smartphone. The cloud is the other piece of puzzle.
"The great advantage of the phone is that it's pervasive, and they're very powerful already. The processors in a phone are much more capable than the processors you're going to find in any of those hubs. Better yet, they get replaced every two years. Your risk of obsolescence isn't high."
Additionally, software can constantly be updated whereas hardware ages and must be recycled for newer models. But that doesn't mean building a smart home app has been easy. Quite the contrary.
Smart home devices really love rules
Using an app on a mobile device isn't a new or revelatory concept. There are plenty of smart home apps cropping up all the time. However, according to Dickson, they're far too simplistic - but simultaneously, not complicated enough.
"Automations are rules," says Dickson.
"They require a rules engine to be able to evaluate the time of day, your presence, asleep or awake, etc. All these things need to be fed constantly into a rules engine.
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"(For example) 'Lily goes to sleep, make sure to turn down the temperature, close the door locks, turn off all the lights.' It's doing all these various things and for these rules engines to work correctly, they need to be very powerful and not simplistic."
Dickson says they've seen other companies trying to solve this with simplistic rules engines where "If this happens, then do that." In other words, there's one trigger and one action. But it doesn't come together as neatly as you'd like.
"It all seems very good and easy to understand from a user standpoint. But the truth of it is if you put the rules together (like), 'When I wake up in the morning, turn on the coffee maker.' It sounds like a great plan but it breaks down pretty quickly when you realize that well, sometimes I go on vacation - is it going to know this?"
Then you add in other rules like only wanting coffee on weekdays and not weekends, but only if you're home and so forth. When you look at it that way, programming a simple app immediately becomes a huge headache.
Dickson says it's only "one example of peeling the onion back" when it comes to home automation rules. When you're using the app and setting up your devices, it can't be as simple as having one trigger and one action.
"The rules need to have a lot of flexibility and understanding of you and your context and the conditions which you live your life. So the challenge is how do you take that powerful rule engine that can have all this conditional logic which it needs to work properly, and still make it really easy for the user to understand what they want to do."
The Yonomi app is simple on the surface and complicated in the background. It gives you options to choose from so you can make your automation as specific as you want, but the backend has already taken care of everything.
"It can get really complex, but we can't allow it to," he tells us.
"We have to use all these resources at our disposal: data analytics, learning algorithms and a great user interface to make this as close to mindless as possible.
"The processing is done in the cloud and analytics is done in the backend in the cloud so you can use a lot of power and not be concerned about battery life."
The smart home revolution has just begun
The future of the smart home is unclear but hopefully the fog will dissipate once companies find their stride and create a unified platform. When that is however, is up for debate.
Apps like Yonomi are a great start. The problem is adding all the devices then deciding on which app to pick. More and more products are entering the Yonomi ecosystem all the time though - Amazon Echo and Schlage Connect and Sense smart locks have just been integrated.
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Having Alexa is pretty huge considering it acts like a hub you can speak to. Yes, it's another device added to your tech collection but it's optional and Yonomi is still pulling all the weight. Basically, Alexa can work with Yonomi to run any of your Routines if you tell it to verbally. We wouldn't be surprised if the company adds in the rest of Amazon's family of voice assistant speakers.
Dickson is understandably excited about the integration of Echo and you should be too. While Echo can connect to various smart home devices, it doesn't really connect to an app that unifies all your automation needs.
Therein lies the problem again. Though most devices and their apps are cross platform, you'll end up with a bunch of boxes on top of your other boxes around the house. Yonomi will hopefully streamline the confusion and clear a way for more standardization as smart devices continue to seep into our lives.
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"The future of IoT is so unknown but the one thing that seems completely obvious at this point is that Internet of Things, connected devices and wearables are an inevitability," Dickson says.
"It will affect everybody and every home. In the very, very near future, the price of the devices, the quality, the usefulness, accessibility - all of it will come to a tipping point. You'll find it impossible to go out and buy a brand new door lock that isn't connected, or thermostat. It's already true for televisions. I don't think you can buy many televisions that aren't internet connected. That will happen one by one with all the things around us very rapidly.
"This is a great benefit for us. Because we're a software company, we can adapt really, really quickly. The new devices come out and we can create adaptors or connectors and support them quickly in our app or user experience. That's something folks building hardware hubs can't possibly do in the same way. Our future feels very busy and very bright."