Right at the end of the year, smart home enthusiasts got an early Christmas present with a massive announcement from Apple, Google, and Amazon: they’re working together on a single smart home standard called the Project Connected Home over IP … or CHIP.1 After reading the news this was my initial reaction.2
But what is CHIP? And why is it such a big deal for the future of smart homes? And why should you even care?
If you’ve been here with any regularity, you know two things about me. 1) I like to dig into the “how” and “why” of technologies that can impact our lives. And 2) I’m a big fan of smart homes because they’re far more than eye candy and smartphone parlor tricks. They can add security, accessibility, and help with energy conservation in any home.
But recommending smart home gadgets and setups is tricky. I’ve often referred to the current state of smart home technology as being a bit of the wild west. Every company is out for themselves, creating systems that often don’t talk to a competitor’s system, which means consumers can often get left holding the bag. It’s why I’m very selective in the gear I recommend on the channel. The number one requirement is that it’s easy to use and setup. The second requirement is that it’s safe and secure. And the third is that it’s as cross-platform as it can be. Sometimes you have to make tradeoffs on that last one to ensure the first two.
Well, with the announcement of CHIP, it’s looking like there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. If it plays out like I hope it does, we may have all three of those items addressed going forward. The wild west may finally be tamed.
What is CHIP?
Today we have several competing standards and protocols like Zigbee, Thread, Z-Wave, Bluetooth LE, WiFi, Works with Nest, Apple HomeKit, X10, Lutron … you get the idea. Each of them have their pros and cons. Start building out your smart home on one of these technologies, but need to branch out to another, you’re going to need to use some kind of bridge device or service. Most often we’re talking about hubs like Smartthings and Hubitat, or services like IFTTT. Like I said before … the wild west. This makes for a very challenging user experience.
CHIP is aiming to put that all behind us. Things like Zigbee, thread, bluetooth, WiFi aren’t going anywhere, but there will be a standard smart home communications protocol so they can seamlessly talk to each other. In theory, if you buy a CHIP certified device from one company, it will be able to work with another CHIP certified device from a competitor. For instance a smart thermostat would have a standard way to communicate temperature, humidity, and fan speed, as well as to receive commands to adjust temperature … or turn the fan on and off. Nest, Ecobee, or Honeywell shouldn’t matter as long as they’re all CHIP certified.
What’s the most interesting thing to me is that the heart of the effort is coming from the Zigbee Alliance, Apple, Google, and Amazon. Those are some of the biggest players in smart homes today. Other partners include Ikea, Legrand, Smartthings, and Silicon Labs. The last one is even more interesting because Silicon Labs owns Z-wave, which is one of the other major smart home wireless standards today. Z-wave, in theory, is open-sourced, but Silicon Labs is the only company allowed to produce the Z-wave wireless chips needed to make it work. Not exactly open. A couple of days after the announcement of CHIP, Silicon Labs announced that they are opening up Z-wave to allow competitors to manufacture Z-wave chips.3 That move alone shows how massive CHIPs impact on the industry may end up being. Apple has also open-sourced aspects of Homekit’s ADK (assessment and deployment kit),4 which will make it easier for accessory makers to test out and experiment with Homekit without the need to pay upfront. To quote Apple from their blog post about CHIP:
“By open-sourcing its HomeKit technology, Apple will be helping to jump-start the initiative and ultimately deliver an even better experience to customers. Starting today, developers can use the HomeKit Open Source ADK to prototype non-commercial smart home accessories. Apple will also contribute its HomeKit Accessory Protocol to the working group.”5
The siloed nature of current smart home technology has been holding it back. I hear from a lot of people that they just don’t get the appeal of smart home technology. Advertisements tend to focus heavily on the “hey look … I can turn my lights red by using my phone!” That gives the perception that smart home technology is just eye candy and doesn’t provide real value. Others have been burned by buying something that requires a specific app to setup and use, and can’t talk to anything else in their house. Nobody wants to have to jump between a half dozen different apps to configure things. The industry has finally woken up to the user experience challenges and is attempting to fix it. They’ll get a lot further working together instead of trying to maintain such strict silos. This is the first smart home standard I’ve actually gotten excited about because all of the major players are involved.
This system is abstracting and unifying the underlying communications between devices. That means companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon can focus on creating engaging software experiences on top of that communications layer. Devices will just work. And users will have a cohesive user experience using whatever software platform they’re happiest with … whether that’s Amazon, Apple, Google, Smartthings … fill in your favorite platform here.
And on the gadget side of things, it should simplify development and manufacturing. A company doesn’t have to design their light bulb or smart thermostat to work specifically with Alexa, Google, Amazon, or Smartthings. And they don’t have to necessarily create their own app just to get things up and running. They can focus on creating well built smart home products. This, in theory, should help to commoditize those products and drive down prices. Lowering development costs will lower final product cost. In the end, we should hopefully see a wider variety of products in the market, with a lower cost, and a far better user experience in setup and use.
But what’s the downside? I see two possible issues. First, groups like this can get bogged down in corporate politics. Infighting could slow down agreement on a final standard. So while this sounds like a great concept on paper, there’s still a lot of details for the group to iron out. They’re hoping to have a finalized CHIP specification out by late 2020, which is great if they can stick to that timeline. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) took years to finalize the HTML 5 specification for websites. It’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, but standards bodies aren’t known for their speed.6
The second problem could be that this just adds to the mess of standards already out there. Instead of one specification to rule them all, we just end up with yet another. This could manifest through half-hearted adoption of the standard. Since this standardization will commoditize many smart home product categories, like lights, some manufacturers may want to hold back certain features and functions for their proprietary systems and software. Otherwise, they could risk not standing out from the crowd. We’ve seen similar issues in web standards and browsers. Browser makers want to iterate and roll out new features that aren’t part of the standard yet. Developers start creating websites targeted at those browsers with non-standard HTML and CSS, which makes other browsers not appear to be fully functional. And you end up seeing websites that say things like, “best viewed in Chrome.”7 Will that happen with this? I hope not, but we’ll most likely see some non-standard, half-hearted implementations along the way.
Those potential pitfalls are far outweighed by the upside of this announcement. The smart home industry has needed a shake up; something to pull the major players together in order to take smart homes truly mainstream. It may take a year for the standard to be agreed upon and another few years before we see a lot of CHIP certified products hit the market, but it’s a start.
The timing of this announcement couldn’t be better. WiFi 6 is a major leap over WiFi 5, which is what we’re all using today. One of the big reasons I tend to not recommend WiFi smart home gear over Zigbee or Z-wave is that most WiFi routers can’t handle a lot of devices connected at once. Most routers start to choke when they hit around 50 devices,8 which is pretty easy to hit when you start adding light bulbs, thermostats, door locks, and more to your home. WiFi 6 changes that by being able to handle four times the numbers devices, requires less power from a device to maintain its connection, and is also able to communicate with a dozen devices at the same time. CHIP with WiFi 6 strikes me as the perfect pairing9 … it’s the chocolate and peanut butter combo that could accelerate adoption and improve the smart home experience.
Does that mean we should hold off on buying gear until this stuff gets finalized? No. While there’s still no information on upgradability of current devices to the new standard, Apple, Amazon, and Google have said that they’re not deprecating old devices. Everything that works today will continue to work into the future.
The CHIP announcement makes me even more bullish on smart home technology in general. I’m looking forward to the day when my smart EV charger can coordinate with my home’s battery and solar panels to optimize my charging schedule to save me money. All without me having to do anything … other than plugging my car into the charger. There are so many possibilities for how these devices can coordinate to save us energy, money, and make us safer.