Taking The Hard Road: Why Smart Home Should Be Open

Closed software has become a massive problem holding back the smart home industry — but what does it mean to build open source instead? Learn why conscious consumers should be demanding open source to insure the best possible smart home products.

*This post is also available in German | Hier zum deutschen Blog-Eintrag.

In 2016, 80 million smart home devices were shipped world wide. By 2050 this number is expected to grow to 193 million. With thousands of brands and platforms on the market and hundreds of millions of devices shipped — one has to ask:

If so many devices have been shipped — is smart home now in the mass adoption phase? 

Most people are likely to say no. With the rise of Sonos and Hue users, many people now know about smart home… but still aren’t adopting it. There are lots of reasons for this —  including cost, technical knowledge, consumer understanding, privacy concerns and many more. 

While these topics are an issue for consumers, there is one massive problem which is industry-wide — the way most companies are building their software

Photo credit: Jerry Kiesewetter

Building closed software is bad for companies, users and developers — particularly when it comes to making products for the home. To shed some light on this topic for end consumers — and in hopes that they begin to opt to support open source projects — we want to discuss why closed software is holding back an industry that could alter how every one of us lives, for better… or worse. 

What Does It Mean to Be Open Source?

When software is open source, it means the person or company has chosen to make their software available to anyone — to look at, modify or use for other projects. Open source is important because it encourages collaboration. For the coder, building open creates peer pressure to avoid sloppy code or quick fixes. It also allows a community to form around a project and provide valuable feedback, bug fixes and ideas. 

Open source is a big topic in software —one that developers and businesses have strong opinions about. Whether we realize it or not, we all interact with open and closed systems everyday. One of the biggest examples is that most web servers are running an open source operating system called Linux — meaning that nearly all users of the internet use open source software every single day. 

As a non-software developer, you probably haven’t thought much about this. However, supporting open source should matter to all consumers. Open source software means better products and experiences while holding companies accountable for their activities. 

So Why Do Companies Build Closed? 

Some companies don’t want to open source because they:

  1. Are banking on licensing their software and therefore need to protect the intellectual property. 
  2. Are embarrassed about quick fixes and hacks that are holding the software together.
  3. Simply don’t benefit from it — either because they don’t need feedback or don’t have a community that cares.

For some companies, it doesn’t matter if they build open or closed — but for the smart home industry, it’s a crucial decision. When smart home companies build closed ecosystems it can hurt consumers, developers and the market, effectively keeping the industry from maturing and innovating. 

Smart Home Should Be Open

So what’s the benefit of open source? Even though it’s time-consuming and means no short cuts —  the fact is, building an open smart home system makes a huge difference. Here are four out of dozens of reasons that smart home SHOULD be open: 

1. Customers Should Be in Control

Building smart home devices and services is different than building regular apps. With smart home, you are putting technology into people’s most private spaces. For this reason, customers should always be in control of their privacy, data and the way they choose to incorporate technology into their homes. 

Many customers buy big brands such as Apple or Google, with the assumption that they are ‘too big to fail’. The issue with this, as we saw in the San Bernardino Case with Apple, is that we don’t have control of where our data is going — we are at the mercy of large companies.

This risk is certainly not eradicated by open source. However, by building open source, companies are showing their inner workings and checking where your data is going. With big companies that are proprietary, it’s hard to know who has internal access to your data.

2. Products Should Be Built to Last

When you buy a physical thing — a jacket or a chair, it likely crosses your mind to buy something that will last. This concept is that same with software — you don’t want to invest in something knowing it will be useless or broken in the near future.

One way to insure you’re buying something built to last when it comes to software is to buy open source. Lots of things can happen to companies (bankruptcy, acquisition, mergers etc) and when this occurs, customers who bought the product shouldn’t be affected.

Nest permanently disabled Revolv in May, 2017.

When Google bought the smart home startup Revolv, they decided to discontinue the apps and all support, leaving users with an expensive piece of hardware that didn’t work. Customers were furious, calling into question the longevity of some smart home hardware.

Which hardware will Google choose to intentionally brick next? If they stop supporting Android will they decide that the day after the last warranty expires that your phone will go dark? Is your Nexus device safe? What about your Nest fire/smoke alarm? What about your Dropcam? What about your Chromecast device? Will Google/Nest endanger your family at some point? — Arlo Gilbert on Medium

With open source, this concern is lessened because the company is not the only contributor, there is also community support. It doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for a company to ‘brick’ hardware, but it certainly makes it harder.

3. Community Keeps Companies in Check

With a community of contributors, a company builds their software in a “glass kitchen” —  meaning that anyone can see what they are doing. If a company has sloppy code or quick fixes, the other developers can point it out. This “embarrassment- driven development” means there is peer pressure to build the best code possible. 

Casa Camper Hotel Berlin designed by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec

Likewise, when it comes to issues such as security, the community is a great resource. In a closed system, a company can only practice ‘security by obscurity’ — meaning they hide what they are working on by keeping it secret. With open source, companies inherently practice the opposite. ‘Security by transparency’ means they allow anyone to see where there are issues so that they can fix them. This transparency insures the quality and security of the entire system. 

4. More Contributors = Better Products 

Open source is built on the idea of collaboration and transparency. It means that when a company builds a product, they are not just relying on their own knowledge and skills. Companies don’t need to reinvent the wheel — but rather build on top of existing projects. 

With open source, anyone anywhere in the world can look at the code base and make suggestions, modifications and contributions. As the community around a project grows — so does the speed at which the product is produced and the end quality. 

Open Source Smart Home

As the smart home market develops and grows, more companies will and should be building open source. From the other perspectives, conscious consumers should be demanding open source to insure the best possible smart home products — and start opting to buy open source products over alternatives. 

Who Are We? 

We are Senic, a hardware and software startup in Berlin building interfaces and systems for smart homes. You can check out our newest product COVI, a speech-enabled light with open source smart home hub. For developers, you can check out our documentation or GitHub.

Further Reading

Part 5/8: Design for Manufacturing

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