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Connected Homes September 2015 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Kyle M. Whitman

Google OnHub

Why is this topic significant?

Google's OnHub is a home Wi-Fi router that incorporates home-automation features and that includes several design and interface elements that significantly improve the user experience of managing and configuring home networks. The potential exists for OnHub to help popularize home automation, but the device's home-automation features are not currently active.

Description

Google's OnHub costs $199 and offers hardware features that are common on routers in its price range, including multiple high-power antennas (13 in total), a USB port (for connecting printers and mass-storage devices for sharing across the network), and powerful processing hardware to support advanced routing features. Unlike many—but not all—competing devices, the OnHub has a somewhat visually attractive and minimalist form factor, with its antennas concealed within the device's narrow, cylindrical body. Google encourages OnHub users to locate the device out in the open, in a central location within the home, so as to improve wireless coverage.

The OnHub also has some unique features compared with competing devices, including an unusually large amount of nonvolatile storage memory (which allows the device to run more complex software) and support for Bluetooth and IEEE 802.15.4 (a physical- and media-access-layer specification that forms the basis for ZigBee, Thread, and other low-power networking protocols). Other notable features include an automatic firmware-update capability that can function without rebooting the device, and an unusually user-friendly setup and configuration interface that uses a smartphone application. Among other things, the application presents users' home networks visually, and it allows users to manage quality-of-service (QoS) prioritization by touching the icon of a specific device in a graphic map of the network. The application then allows a user to select a duration for which that device has priority over other home-network devices. (For example, if a user wants to watch a high-definition streaming movie on a smart TV, that user can select the smart TV in the network map, and then give that device highest priority in the network for the movie's duration.)

Implications

High-end home routers commonly ship with accompanying smartphone applications for device setup and configuration, but users have long complained about the overall poor quality and usability of such applications. By contrast, early OnHub adopters appear to be very satisfied with the quality and usability of its accompanying application, as well as with the extent to which the application succeeds in streamlining the process of troubleshooting and configuring home networks. However, current versions of the software compromise some important functionality that advanced users desire, including the ability to designate some devices as having priority on a permanent basis, or to fine-tune QoS settings.

Impacts/Disruptions

The most promising features of the OnHub are its ability to perform automated, in-background firmware upgrades and its support for home-automation. The former capability eliminates one of the more significant "pain points" with home routers (firmware upgrades are typically somewhat onerous to perform, and they incur risk of permanently disabling a device, a risk that OnHub's architecture seems to eliminate). Google might use firmware upgrades to add high-value, disruptive capabilities into OnHub, while maintaining the high standards of usability provided by the router's current smartphone software. However, Google thus far has had a very poor track record in home-automation; nearly all the solutions that the company has tried to introduce previously have failed.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Home automation, home networking, broadband connectivity, mobile integration, Internet-of-Things, mesh networking, wireless connectivity, embedded devices

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Apple tvOS

Why is this topic significant?

Apple's tvOS is a new software platform that adds support for third-party applications—including video games—to Apple's latest Apple TV streaming-media players. In essence, tvOS brings Apple TV up to feature parity with many other competing TV-connected devices, as well as many smart-TV platforms. Thus far, such platforms have not become popular for gaming or other applications unrelated to streaming media, and whether Apple's tvOS will change that trend remains highly uncertain.

Description

Apple's newest Apple TV models have significantly improved processing and storage hardware compared with previous models, and they run a new operating system (OS) that supports many more features and functions than before. The OS—Apple tvOS—includes revisions to the Apple TV user interface that allow users to scroll through on-screen elements using a touch pad (which the new Apple TV models integrate into their remote controls) or a smartphone's touch screen. The new OS also includes support for voice search using Apple's Siri cloud-based speech-recognition service, as well as support for third-party applications and games that users can download through a TV-based version of Apple's App Store. Apple is also offering a software development kit (SDK) for tvOS that shares many common libraries and architectures with iOS (the OS that runs on Apple's iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch devices). Ideally, developers can port their existing software from iOS to tvOS relatively easily and inexpensively. Moreover, the tvOS SDK will also ideally allow developers to ensure that their applications and games deliver a smooth and compelling user experience despite the major differences between mobile and TV-centric user interfaces.

Implications

Since the mid 2000s, network-connected game consoles have been popular platforms for playing back streaming media. Since 2012, various companies have been trying to make streaming-media players and smart TVs into popular platforms for gaming, as well as for other applications unrelated to media streaming. Thus far, such efforts have not been successful. Gamers have consistently complained about a lack of compelling titles in devices' application stores. Complaints about poor software quality, bugs, and a general lack of user-interface polish have also been common among early adopters of gaming-enabled streaming-media players. (For a more detailed discussion about issues with such devices, see "Microconsoles" in the June 2015 Viewpoints.)

Impacts/Disruptions

Apple has long been a market leader in developing very high quality user interfaces that people find both accessible and compelling. The company's iOS platform has also attracted a very large community of developers and has become a major gaming platform in its own right. Thus, one might reasonably expect that Apple's tvOS devices will succeed in popularizing streaming-media players for gaming, infotainment, and other applications that go beyond media playback. Such popularization could ignite renewed interest in smart TVs and all manner of other connected-home gear. But even if tvOS does attract a large initial developer interest and deliver a smooth, bug-free experience, it does not necessarily follow that users will sustain a level of interest in the platform that supports the virtuous cycle of engagement and developer investment that is necessary for success.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Streaming media, gaming, software development, software applications, home networks, home entertainment, broadband connectivity

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: