Navigant Research Blog

Alphabet-Owned Companies Making Smart Home Moves Across Europe

— April 12, 2017

Through its subsidiaries Nest and Google, Alphabet has been active in the US smart home space. On April 6, Google Home finally made a leap across the pond, launching in the United Kingdom 5 months after its launch in the United States. Google Home is Google’s response to the Amazon Echo, which has been available to consumers in the United States since 2014. One of the main appeals of the Google Home is its ability to integrate with other Google applications, such as its search engine, calendar, Pixel smartphones, and most recently, Google Wi-Fi.

Fellow Alphabet subsidiary Nest has had its Nest Learning Thermostat, Nest Protect, and Nest Cam installed in more than 190 countries. However, these products have only been available for purchase in seven countries. This is quickly changing, with the company announcing that it would expand sales to Austria, Germany, Italy, and Spain as of February 15 and to Mexico as of April 4. The company stated that it plans to continue expanding globally as demand continues to grow and that it is looking to partner with energy, insurance, and telecom providers as a method for making its devices more available to consumers.

The Race for European Markets

Alphabet is entering the European market at a time when few other players have traction across multiple countries. Apple’s HomeKit product has yet to launch in the United Kingdom, while Samsung SmartThings is selling in the United Kingdom but is not present in other countries. Amazon devices are available in the United Kingdom and Germany, but only as of late 2016. Point solutions exist and are gaining traction—such as tado’s smart heating solutions that sell in a variety of countries or Quby, a smart thermostat and home energy management company acquired by Dutch utility Eneco. However, these companies may not have the resource support of bigger players like Nest and Google.

As Alphabet makes moves across Europe through its subsidiaries, the tech giant is pushing forward progress in the smart home sector. The United States tends to be the main market for companies focused on the smart home, as is the case with many tech solutions and innovative offerings. In terms of energy, this can be attributed in part to the difference in heating and cooling systems across countries in Europe, where it is harder to approach the market with one solution and where devices often have to be completely redesigned. However, Europe is a hotbed of smart home potential, with energy-conscious consumers accustomed to innovative technologies for reducing emissions, such as solar. Alphabet’s engagement in the European market could help propel the smart home industry forward and significantly increase uptake in energy management devices.

 

CES 2017: The Year of Alexa and the Smart Home

— January 24, 2017

Home Energy ManagementAs my colleague Neil Strother put it, Alexa stole the show at CES 2017. Walking through the smart home exhibition at the Sands, it seemed as though every vendor with a device prominently featured the Amazon Echo and emphasized integration with Alexa. What struck me most about this phenomenon was Amazon’s ability to transition the smart home from an idea into a reality. The ability of device manufacturers to hone in on Alexa as the basis for the smart home, on which a whole ecosystem of connectivity and access can be built, is pushing a market that the average consumer can get on board with, as opposed to a Jetsons-style future that seems so far away. The Amazon Echo is not just the advertised Wi-Fi speaker, but an entire smart home platform.

Alphabet’s Google Home is also acting as a connected home platform and pushing the market closer to the mainstream. Google Home touts integration with many of Google’s beloved products and services, including its search engine, translation service, and mapping software, as well as a series of devices such as the Nest product line and Samsung’s SmartThings. However, Home still has a long way to go before it can catch up to the connected ecosystem that Amazon has created since the Echo’s release in 2014. This was made clear at CES, where Google Home took second place to Amazon Echo in terms integration with third-party devices and presence at vendor booths.

Comprehensive Solutions

Outside of the Wi-Fi speaker play, others in the market are providing comprehensive solutions that are pushing the smart home forward. Vivint Smart Home, which had a booth that looked more like a livable home than a technology demonstration, not only has a whole ecosystem of devices (yes, Amazon Echo among them), but is also partnering with sister business Vivint Solar to grant consumers more control over their energy. This all operates on one platform, which includes artificial intelligence for learning user patterns and making recommendations on how to better automate devices in the ecosystem, thus bringing the market that much closer to truly smart homes.

There are still major hurdles to creating a truly smart home, such as interoperability, security, and the technology required to make a home “smart” rather than simply “connected.” However, CES 2017 showed that the smart home is becoming much more of a reality than a concept, and  devices like the Amazon Echo are providing average users with a glimpse into the future.

 

Alexa Steals the Show at CES 2017

— January 16, 2017

CodeVoice activation took center stage at CES 2017, with Amazon and Alexa as the leading stars. I spent several days at the annual geek fest, and the device kept coming up in multiple conversations with industry players.

Alexa, formally called the Amazon Echo, is not new. The $180 device was first available exclusively to Amazon Prime members in November 2014. Since then, the device (along with its smaller clone, the Dot) and its cloud-based data service have been made available to anyone, steadily gaining a solid foothold in the smart home-Internet of Things (IoT) market. It has become a surprise hit, and vendors across the spectrum now clamor to include Alexa functionality in their devices. Companies like LG, Whirlpool, Samsung, Mattel, Lenovo, GE, and Ford have (or will soon have) products with Alexa voice technology.

From an energy standpoint, Alexa has already made inroads with smart thermostat makers to work directly with their products. For some months now, Alexa has enabled users to simply say a command, and a Wi-Fi-connected thermostat will alter the temperature to a new setting on a Nest, ecobee3, Honeywell Lyric, or Sensi product.

Waiting in the Wings

Even though Amazon’s Alexa is the clear leader of the voice activation trend, Alphabet’s Google Home device was waiting in the wings at CES to carve out its share of the market. The Home device has only been available to consumers since its launch in November 2016, but a number of vendors I spoke with already have products that can work with Home or are planning to add Home integration to their products in the near future.

While Amazon and now Alphabet are competing head-to-head for voice activation in the home, conspicuously absent in the space at CES were Apple and Microsoft—though that could soon change if rumors about Apple are true. Rumblings out of Cupertino indicate Apple is developing its own competitor to Alexa. Microsoft has its own voice-activated assistant engine called Cortana, but it is still unclear what the software giant’s strategy is in this part of the market and whether it wants to join a competitive hardware-cloud battle where it would likely start out as the number four player.

Other Connected Things: Mostly Incremental Gains

I saw mostly incremental advancements for smart thermostats, smart appliances, and numerous connected-smart lighting products on the show floor, which is not meant as a criticism. As manufacturers hone their skills, I would expect to see steady energy efficiency gains among these products as more sensors and data analytics combine to improve energy consumption. This kind of effort is difficult to achieve and takes time to develop.

Nonetheless, there was one notable product in terms of energy efficiency called LaDouche from French startup Solable. LaDouche is a residential water heater, and it was named as a CES 2017 Innovation Awards honoree for its heat exchange capability, which ostensibly can lower an electric hot-water bill by up to 80%. That is impressive (if it can be verified).

Voice Technology as Transformative

The 2017 CES was a showcase for voice technology as a transformative trend, and one that Navigant Research has pointed out as a key new input for the IoT and computing in general. This was CES’ 50th anniversary event, and the show remains one of the few places where transformative technology gets a megaphone and where one gets a glimpse of what potentially lies ahead in coming years—maybe even in the next 50. Flying cars—are you with me?

 

Giving to the Environment This Holiday Season

— December 5, 2016

LEDsThe moment Halloween was over, or in some cases before, holiday decorations were already on sale in major retail stores. With the holiday season comes added expenses—from gifts to parties to additional travel. Reducing energy consumption allows consumers to save money on their utility bills while also contributing less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. By selecting certain types of gifts, it’s easy to help reduce waste and environmental impact during the holiday season.

Lower Energy Consumption

Holiday lights for both the commercial and residential sectors are already an added expense this time of year. Using LED holiday lights can greatly lower utility bills. Even with the additional upfront costs compared with traditional miniature lights, LEDs are a more economical option. While incandescent lights have a lifespan of roughly 2,000 hours, LED holiday lights have a projected lifespan of upwards of 20,000 hours. In addition to their extended lifespan, LEDs use considerably less energy and thus cost less over the same operating hours as traditional lights. Although LEDs consume substantially less energy than incandescents, reducing overall operating hours will decrease energy consumption even more. One simple way to reduce operating hours is to turn off lights when no one is in a particular room or area.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Many gifts for the holidays are made from recycled materials, such as recycled tires, plastic bottles, reclaimed wood, and repurposed clothes or fabrics. These types of gifts reduce environmental impact over gifts made only with new, non-recycled materials.

Reusing items comes in many forms. Purchasing rechargeable batteries eliminates waste for gifts and home electronics that require batteries. Reusing newspaper, paper bags, maps, scarves, or other fabric as wrapping is an environmentally friendly alternative to purchasing wrapping paper, which not only reduces waste, but also cuts overall holiday shopping costs. For the crafty types, holiday decorations can be made by reusing household items, such as jars, cardboard, strings, and paper.

With the increase in wrapping paper, holiday cards, cans, and bottles, it is important to recycle as many items as possible. As Navigant Research discusses in its Smart Waste Collection report, the collection of smart waste is a growing market and is expected to grow from $57.6 million in 2016 to $223.6 million in 2025. While many recycling programs could improve upon efficiency, they will accept the above listed items, making it easy to recycle instead of throwing these items in the trash. For other things such as electronics, there are often special recycling options for these items or many places that will accept them as donations.

From Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, household waste increases by more than 25%. Reducing, reusing, and recycling can significantly decrease the amount of waste around the holidays and help form habits to continue waste reduction throughout the year.

 

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