The vision of the smart home currently sold by Google and Amazon is quite simple. You talk to a smart speaker, like an Echo Dot, to control your smart lights, wireless speakers or thermostat.
Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa are only just starting to experiment with “routines”, where multiple controls are linked to a single command or action. However, Home Assistant has offered this kind of next-level home automation for years.
What is Home Assistant?
Home Assistant is an open source platform you can download and use for free. It began its life as a hobby project, tinkering with the control of Philips Hue lights shortly after they were released in 2012. And now more than 70,000 IoT enthusiasts use Home Assistant to control their smart home gadgets. You can too, if you’re willing to put in a little effort.
“Our goal is to be the platform for the home. Period,” says Home Assistant founder Paulus Schoutsen.
Home Assistant already supports “over 1,000 services and pieces of hardware” according to Schoutsen, and that includes Nest, Philips Hue, Sonos, WeMo, Ikea, Arlo, Ecobee, Ring, Dyson, Xiaomi and August devices. “We allow you to control everything that can be controlled from a single place," he says. You can see the full list of supported kit here and we can't see too many gaps.
A little like Samsung SmartThings, it acts like a hub for your devices. And a response from one smart home device can trigger an action in another.
For example, you could create a routine where your Netgear router notices you’ve arrived back at home. Home Assistant can then make your Nest thermostat click on and light up the Philips Hue bulbs in your hallway. There's a bunch more examples of automation recipes on the Cookbook page of Home Assistant's site.
As long as your device is supported by the Home Assistant platform, the limits are defined as much by your imagination as the hardware.
How do I get Home Assistant?
There’s a Home Assistant app for Android and iOS. However, like Samsung SmartThings you first need a hardware hub that acts as the platform’s brain.
Unlike SmartThings, though, you build rather than buy one. Home Assistant can be installed on a desktop or laptop but running it on a Rapberry Pi is easier and more convenient.
There’s now a dedicated operating system called HASS.io, designed for setting up Home Assistant on a Raspberry Pi 3. Setting this up may require more effort than ordering a SmartThings hub, but it’s a lot cheaper too. And we'll be publishing a step by step guide on how to get started with Home Assistant soon.
Why try Home Assistant?
When you buy into a piece of tech, how you “pay” for it is usually quite obvious. You buy hardware, and if that hardware seems like a bargain you’re probably paying with your personal data too. Google and Amazon’s smart speakers in particular are effectively subsidised by the value of the data we end up feeding them.
Home Assistant is a little different. It is a community project, made by nerds creating things they want. And we get the benefit.
“Philips Hue was released in America, I bought one right away,” says Schoutsen. “I wanted the lights to turn on when the sun was setting. Why would I want to walk towards a button to turn on the lights?
“If the sun is setting I want them to turn on. So I wrote that, a small script. Then I realised, now the lights are turning on when I am not at home, so I added presence detection. Then I realised when the sun sets, it’s too dark already. So I added advanced automations, offsets. That was the foundation, and we kept growing and iterating to what it is today."
A new version of Home Assistant is released every two weeks with “around 70 developers contributing code” to the project. Schoutsen is now based between New York and Europe and as of this April is an employee of networking company Ubiquiti Networks. This allows him to work full time on growing Home Assistant, but Schoutsen says Ubiquiti doesn't own Home Assistant and that it remains open source and independent.
The privacy factor
There are plans to offer a paid cloud Home Assistant subscription, which lets it interact with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, something not possible with the standard version. This feature is currently in open beta, and uses Amazon’s cloud servers.
The standard version “will always be free”, though, and runs locally, meaning any security problems are those of your smart home devices, not Home Assistant.
“We aim to keep everything local because it is fast and more secure. The data doesn’t leave, no-one can snoop in on it,” says Schoutsen.
Why would I tell Google when I turn on the lights or what video I’m watching? Google is an advertising company
Just to make that crystal clear – Home Assistant's own statement on privacy is this: “Home Assistant allows you to control all your devices without storing any of your data in the cloud. We like to keep your privacy private.” If you are worried about privacy, using Home Assistant is a much better idea than waiting for Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa routines to develop.
“Part of our fanbase says, ‘we want to have a private system’,” says Schoutsen. “Why would I tell Google when I turn on the lights or what video I’m watching? It’s a big invasion of privacy. Suddenly Google knows in which room of the house you are, what you’re doing, if you’re sleeping and what you’re watching. Google is an advertising company so in the end this data will feed back into their algorithms.”
Home Assistant sounds perfect: you can use it for free, it doesn’t mine your data for ads and it supports most of the popular smart home devices. What’s the catch?
It’s not easy to use. Yet.
“It’s not beginner friendly at all,” Schoutsen admits. While there are visual elements to the interface, to programme-in automations you need to edit text files using a language called YAML.
To those without deep technical knowledge, this will feel like writing HTML or coding.
The Home Assistant forums are full of YAML text you can (attempt to) plug into your own creations and the website offers tutorial examples of uses for the platform complete with code. But the learning curve is steep.
Changes are coming, though. “We’re aiming for, by the end of the year, to have all the main products configurable through the user interface,” says Schoutsen. This will get things closer to the experience of SmartThings or another paid platform like Homeseer, with the pace and community support of a popular open source platform.
“Right now we want to be developer focused, because users can start fixing bugs," he says. “But once we grow bigger, we do so much cool stuff that we want to get Home Assistant in the hands of more people.”
If you are not willing to invest the hours required to understand Home Assistant, this software is one to bookmark until later in 2018. However, we’re going to have a crack at the setup ourselves soon to see how someone without a degree in Linux commands will fare. Wish us luck.