Google gives Works With Nest a second life for the privacy era

We talk to Nik Sathe about the future of Google's smart home

Google gives Works with Nest a second life
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It’s been a bumpy few months for any of us who were made to merge our Nest and Google accounts. No more having our lights turn off when we leave the house, no thermostat adjusting itself when we arm our security system.

But now we can breathe a sigh of relief: Works with Nest is coming back, albeit in a slightly modified, arguably more secure format, and under two decidedly less catchy names - Home Routines and Device Access.

At its Made By Google event this week, Rishi Chandra, Google Nest’s GM, touted the company's plan for an ambient smart home (great name by the way, Rishi). Focusing on whole home solutions that bring together your technology to work seamlessly with each other, so you don’t even have to think about it.

We sat down with Nikhil Sathe, VP of engineering at Google Nest, to discuss how Google Nest hopes to achieve this ambient smart home, and how bringing back some of the functionality Works With Nest had is the first step.

Works With Nest is back, sort of, and Google releases a stealth smart home hub

Device Access replaces Works With Nest

“What we were trying to do with Works With Nest was make sure consumers had choices,” Sathe explains. He was part of the original Nest team, before it was bought by Google.

“There was no way that we were ever going to build all the products for the home, but we wanted to make sure we were enabling as rich an ecosystem as possible.

“But we wanted to do this on a foundation of security and privacy, which can get very tricky,” he says. “The more you open things up, the harder it is to secure them.”

The more you open things up, the harder it is to secure them

Security was the main reason touted by Google for killing the program, which had two main capabilities. First, to pipe Nest products like cameras and thermostats into other apps.

“For example, if you had a security system from a security provider and a Nest thermostat, people could operate within the security provider’s app, and have control of all of their devices from one place,” says Sathe.

The second capability was allowing third-party devices to react to signals from Nest devices - such as the Home / Away setting, the Nest Protect smoke alarm, and motion signals from Nest cameras. “The issue with that is it’s very sensitive data, and we wanted to make sure that we were protecting that,” says Sathe.

Read this: Google Nest smart speakers now double as a hub

But by doing away with those capabilities Google removed functionality from customers, not a great plan. Now, it's bringing it back, slowly.

“What we announced today was that we will, for the first use case be providing the Device Access API, but with an increased a level of security,” he says. Third parties will go through a security assessment and an annual recertification to make sure that they are protecting consumers' data.

Device Access lets those “qualified” partners access your Nest devices again, if you want them too. So, integrations with Chamberlain’s My Q garage door opener or home security systems such as Simplisafe and Abode, can come back under a slightly different back end, but to the user it will seem as if nothing has changed.

The program is being piloted with a few select partners before being opened up in the coming months.

Works With Nest is back, sort of, and Google releases a stealth smart home hub

Home Routines get smarter

The second thing Google announced was that it's extending Home Routines so users can use Home/Away, smoke sensors, camera motion and person detection to trigger automations, from first- and third-party devices.

This means if your home senses you’re home, it can turn on the lights, or if your camera detects motion it can turn on the lights. The difference from Works With Nest is that the third-party device won’t know why it’s being activated, therefore it’s more secure.

Users have told us very clearly that it's getting way too complicated

These triggers won't roll out until early 2020, and initially these Home Routines will be ones suggested by Google for you in the Home app (which is getting an update of its own to give you a quick recap of all the events in your home). Eventually, however, you’ll be able to create your own.

Early partners in this program include newly-christened Made for Google products from Philips Hue, Lifx, Sylvania, and Sengled. Smart plug and switch makers TP Link (Kasa) and WeMo, plus Yale and Tile are also confirmed as Made for Google partners.

There’s a pattern here - lighting. “Lighting is by far the largest set of smart home devices out there,” says Sathe. “And so there tend to be a lot of these use cases that focus around lighting.”

Home Routines will launch in early 2020 with pre-made routines that Google will integrate into its Home app. “Initially, we'll just make these for you and you just check them off and say, ‘Yes, I want to enable that one.’”

Later in the year Google will open up the Home Routines to more manufacturers, as well as individuals. “For the Home Routines we won't have as stringent security requirements, because there's no need for it - they're not going to get the data.”

“What we're trying to do is to really simplify this for users. Users have told us very, very clearly that it's getting way too complicated and they need somebody to help sort out the mess for them. And they expect it to be Google.”

Works With Nest is back, sort of, and Google releases a stealth smart home hub

Did Google just release a smart home hub?

In addition to announcing more Made for Google partners, which turns your Google Home speaker into a smart home hub of sorts, Google also announced its new Nest Wifi mesh router system.

While there is no Zigbee or Z-Wave in here, it does have BLE, Wi-Fi, and Thread radios in each “point,” as well as Google Assistant. A pretty powerful combination tailored to Google’s new ambient smart home.

Rishi Chandra said at the event that the mesh Wi-Fi system will “help facilitate connections” for your smart home. So, it’s a hub then.

Yes, we know everyone wants us to stop using that term and would rather say things like "bridge," "facilitate," and other words that mean the exact same thing. The problem with early hubs is that they were only hubs, and did little else. A mesh WiFi router, voice assistant, and smart home “bridge” in one? Now that’s a Hub we’re wiling to makes some room for.

Thread is the differentiator here from other Google Nest “hubs” – such as the Google Hub and Nest Mini. The Thread radio is currently only found in the Nest Secure, Nest Hub Max, and Nest Wifi.

We didn't believe that Zigbee and Z-Wave were secure enough

Thread is a networking mesh protocol that allows for direct device-to-device connection, it also boasts low-power, improved range, and is not dependent on Wi-Fi. Google is part of the Thread Group, which also claims Apple, Arm, and Qualcomm as members, and is all-in on the protocol.

“While we hope that the world evolves to a set of secure, reliable, and interoperable standards, and we've been investing a lot of time and effort into making that a reality," says Sathe. "We’ve bet on Thread for the last five years because we believe it is the internet generation technology for the home."

And what about Zigbee and Z-Wave? “These other technologies have a place, but we didn't believe that they were secure enough. Lots of these require a hub," he continues. "As soon as you have a hub in the equation you break that end-to-end security model. We wanted to make sure that we had an end-to-end security model that we could rely on, that didn't require these translations or intermediaries.”

Currently Thread products are very limited, but if you’re all-in on Google and Nest, you’ll find a lot of Thread. It’s in Nest x Yale Lock, Nest Connect, Nest Secure and Nest Detect sensors, Nest Protect – basically everything but the Nest Mini, the thermostat, and the cameras.

As it’s a mesh network if you own a device with a Thread radio in it, other thread devices can use it and each other to communicate. “For example, if you have a Nest x Yale lock, you needed another device that has a Thread chip in it,” says Sathe. “So, our intention was to really simplify this to the user and say that Google Nest Wifi is your connectivity solution for everything.”

Thread is all well and good, but the lack of Z-Wave and Zigbee still means sensors are a big issue for a Google smart home. Home / Away triggers are a step in the right direction, but what about room by room? If you want lights to turn on without a voice command or action in a Google Home, it can’t happen. There are currently no motion sensors compatible with Google Home – other than Nest’s Detect sensors, but those don’t work with Home Routines - yet.

The ambient Google home isn’t quite there, but after today it’s a lot closer.



TAGGED    google    smart home

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