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Android Things is the smart home's saving grace and it can't come soon enough

In an article gushing over my Logitech Harmony remote I mentioned that I had a horrible mish-mash of smart "stuff" in my house and tying it all together was a pain. That prompted a conversation where someone reached out to me with a really great question that I had a tough time answering: Where should I start if I want to build my own smart home?

What makes it tough is that there is just so much of everything out there that claims to be smart or work with smart things. The manufacturers, of course, tell us that their products are the best at what they're supposed to do. When shopping around for things like smart hubs or controllers it's common to see two competing products beside each other and both of them claiming they are the best. And best is a tough thing to define because something could be the best in one way and not another.

The conversation was both memorable and enlightening because in the end, you had two guys scouring the internet and comparing a mother lode of smart stuff trying to determine where someone should get started. I instantly typed HomeKit into Google search, thinking it would be the easy way out, and was quickly disappointed. I was sure that Apple would have an all-encompassing (yet initially expensive) pool of the right hardware and software to make the smart home of your dreams easy to set up and secure out of the box. But Apple is still in the learning stages when it comes to smart things, too. You'll find plenty of things that work with HomeKit, but no single master HomeKit "starter pack" to buy.

Building a cohesive smart home is either difficult or expensive. And sometimes both.

Eventually, we came to the same two conclusions: you'll have to be a bit of a geek to go beyond something simple, and you should start with SmartThings. That's because SmartThings supports the right communications standards (Z-Wave and ZigBee) and has a great online community that can usually get the things which don't work out of the box up and running.

We also both agreed on one other thing — Android Things can't come soon enough.

Not because Android Things will be better or more secure (that'd be HomeKit which is why I went to Apple first) but because it will be free and easy to adapt. Existing smart products aren't going to go away. A company like Lutron isn't going to change anything or ditch their Caseta hub in favor of an Android Things solution, for example, but it wouldn't be hard for a company to build an interface that can bridge them seamlessly. Some existing products that are already sort of a universal hub, like the previously mentioned SmartThings, will also be able to integrate seamlessly. The adaptability of Android Things is a big deal for consumers who don't want to spend a boatload of cash.

Because Android Things is free to use, a lot of companies just getting started — even ones making things we never imagined could be smart — will use it. This is why Google is doing it in the first place: it knows that making it easy to adapt and free to use it will be adopted by companies big and small, and that gets Google in more and more living rooms.

Google will use Android Things to get in your living room the same way it used Android to get in your pocket.

Maybe the best part of Android Things is how we will interact with it all. No normal person should have to care about protocols or sequencing or any other geek factor when they want to upgrade to something like a smart door lock or smoke alarm. How it communicates with other smart devices to do its thing isn't important to the end user, only that it works and is easy to operate. Google Assistant instantly comes to mind, and I can soon see myself saying, "Do I need to buy eggs?" to my phone and having my smart refrigerator answer. But that's not the cool part — a web interface is.

And I don't mean pulling out your phone or laptop to turn on the downstairs lights here. I mean that a proper web interface that can be made to run on a small controller or a display on an appliance or anywhere, and as long as it's connected to a cheap Android Things-compatible hub you can take control of all your smart stuff. You can already do this with several existing smart hubs (like SmartThings; see the Android TV app) but if I'm right about the adoption of Android Things being huge, look for someone, somewhere to build the best user input/user interface device ever.

Best of all, Android Things will let the little guy have access to the same software as the big guys do. Little guys often do really cool things.

I like to tinker with stuff and am looking forward to seeing if I can adapt Android Things to replace my clunky home-built Python controllers for things like my aquarium lights or mailbox alert. I'll bet I can. And if I can, imagine what someone more serious about IoT development can do. I'm pretty pumped about Android Things now that we know a bit more about it and can't wait to see if I'm right or if it will be just another Google also-ran.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Jerry Hildenbrand

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

  • Smartthings controller requires the most cloud (internet) support. Only certain automations can run without the cloud and the controller is inaccessible (no local API) until the cloud is back. Works with zwave, ZigBee, some wifi devices. Has integration with Alexa/google, I believe. Super cheap, often on sale for $50. Wink is mostly fully functional without the cloud but also has limits on how controllable it is without it. Works with zwave, ZigBee, some wifi devices. Has integration with Alexa/google, I believe. Also cheap. Your options for fully local controllers that dont need the internet are: ISY 994 - Capable of Insteon and/or Zwave, some Zigbee. Probably the best Insteon controller. The Pro has IR support built in, making it a good choice for people who want lots of automation in their home theater room. Generally considered to be stable, with a somewhat curated, but stable, list of supported 3rd party products including Alexa. There is an annual fee for their cloud service. Vera - Inexpensive, feature rich, and highly programmable. Lots of inexpensive/free software plugins. The down side is most plugins are user created so there's a real possibility plugins fight. Firmware updates have been meh lately and the hardware is underpowered. It has Alexa support natively, Google support via 3rd party app. Homeseer - As feature rich as Vera, but the plugins are more stable and more expensive. The hardware is also pricier but you get what you pay for, though it can also be installed on PC servers or RPi if you want to build it. Works with Alexa and I think GHome via 3rd party apps. I have just upgraded from a veraplus to a Homeseer SEL Pro. The vera UI is more "Web 2.0" but homeseer is so much faster and responsive that I really don't care. I prefer dense information displays. Lastly, HA means the home does things for you. Lights turn on and off, my cheap zwave thermostat gets ecobee-like functionality by leveraging sensors throughout the house, my pipe heaters operated on internet weather reports or a porch sensor, smoke and flood alarms turn on lights and send text messages, door locks can be remotely controlled and monitored, and I can integrate it with a full security system later if I want.
  • Check out homey, pricey but comes with100% third party compatibility
  • Nothing has 100% 3rd party support. It's just not possible. There's always something. It might be Insteon, or Lutron Caseta, both of which have a decent user base. Which is not to denigrate homey. Being a European product, I have no direct contact with it.
  • Insteon is in many ways the "Apple" of the HA world. There's a single supplier who sells all the products. They are very reliable but a bit pricey. They have a complete product line but if you don't like their 3 light switches, tough. On the other hand, they really do make awesome light switches. Their wall controllers come with laser etched buttons so you don't use stickers for the common labels. Their tech is a dual band radio and power line/x10 signaling. This means it can often work in houses that eat RF signals. But it also means dirty power will eat the PLM unit every 3-5yrs, so buy a spare for the inevitable lightning strike. I personally prefer Zwave over zigbee because there are more products, a little less confusion, and it uses the less cluttered 900MHz band so it doesn't get as much intereference as ZigBee on 2.4GHz . Zigbee has the additional problem that Zigbee LL and Zigbee HA are not compatible, so you have to be careful what you buy if your controller doesn't support both, and there are cases of some Zigbee LL devices not playing nicely. LL is just for lighting (popularized by Hue), HA supports locks, alarms, outlets, etc.
  • Very good points on the different protocols...and I wholeheartedly agree. I have an ISY and a ST and I'm torn between the two. I've pretty much got my insteon stuff on the main floor and started with ST and Z-wave in the basement. My isy does offer Z-wave support as well but I've never tried it there.. The ST hub was $50 for Christmas so I figured I'd give it a try. But local control on the ISY is still a major factor. And there's just no comparable device to the KeyPadLincs.
  • I think it just requires a card upgrade to put zwave on the isy. From what I read, it seems to handle zwave devices fine. I was considering the 994Pro until the Homeseer sale cropped up and I decided to go that route.
  • Very nice article - and the solution you're envisioning is exactly what my company is working on:
  • >Not because Android Things will be better or more secure (that'd be HomeKit which is why I went to Apple first) but because it will be free and easy to adapt. Please quit saying silly things like this without doing the proper research. To claim that Android Things isn't as secure or even more secure than HomeKit just proves that you didn't even do the basic research on how Android Things works or how it's secured. Here, let me help you out:
  • Way to be a dick.
  • The pathetic part is that people like you just swallow all of his misinformation and perpetuate it. This isn't the first time he's been over his head in technology he doesn't understand and then proceeds to misrepresent it. if he can't be bothered to do simple research to understand what he's writing about then he shouldn't be writing about it.
  • You miss my point entirely. You can easily convey your point in a way that doesn't make you a dick.
  • Homekit certification requires hardware backed encryption. Android Things usage does not.
  • Not true anymore. HomeKit has a software certification option. It was announced last June as part of IOS11. It went live this spring on IOS11.3. The encrytion itself is the same so devices will need enough CPU to manage the encryption.
  • The thing is, too many of those who have had a smart home for years will have a mis-matched system. In addition there are advantages of having one. For example, before alexa, you could get tcp bulbs and access them remotely then Alexa was released and they were eventually compatible with it. BUT after a few years, they got out of the market and burned a lot of their customers, including me. I had almost 20 of their bulbs. They were not cheap nor was replacing them. Now I recommend using bulbs and devices from several companies so if in the future, the company decides to burn you, there will not be as many devices and bulbs to replace.
  • Oh, for people who like Smarttings, consider Hubitat. The authors of one of STs most popular logic engines decided to build their own fully local controller. It's out of kickstarter but they are still offering early adopter prices. If homeseer hadn't had their May sale, I might have taken a chance on it.
  • Honestly, the best bet right now is WINK. Smart Things is a mess, HomeKit requires a bunch of individual hubs based on the protocol or brand, and everyone else is behind all of them. Wink also has six different protocols for compatibility, works with a huge number of generic devices, and let you integrate all of these different brands and generic devices into one easy-to-use interface like creating robots and shortcuts and schedules that work fluidly together.
  • I don't know.
    Smartthings - backed by Samsung and being baked into their appliances. Homeseer- going strong for 19 years HomeKit - backed by Apple Wink - 4yro and on it's 3rd owner.