The connected home has been a big theme at CES, and today Comcast is turning on a new service that underscores its intention to be central player in it. The broadband giant is turning on free, voice-controlled IoT services for connected home products to its Xfinity customers in the US — currently numbering 15 million — which will let users link up hardware from various brands it its platform and will enable them to control them through its X1 voice remote or xFi (the app Comcast launched in May last year to control your home WiFi) or Xfinity Home apps.
The service, which will launch in the first half of this year, will initially work with a specific selection of devices, including smart lock company August, Carrier, Chamberlain, ecobee, GE, Honeywell, Kwikset, Nest, Philips Hue, Singled, Tile and Zen, with more integrations coming soon.
The news today signifies the biggest move yet by Comcast in the area of the connected home and the Internet of Things.
IoT in the home has become a battleground of sorts for different tech and communications companies for a couple of reasons. First, they are all continuing to look for ways to make their services more sticky for users amid a very competitive field. For Comcast, its competitors are not only other telcos like Verizon, but also Apple, Google and Amazon, who also are building home hubs filled with entertainment and practical functions.
Second, IoT represents another potential business line for Comcast to move beyond basic broadband and TV subscriptions and a bleak future life as a simple bit pipe. And again, the pressure is higher these days because of competition: people can and do get entertainment and other services from a growing number of other places beyond their TV providers.
And the connected home is a growing opportunity: Comcast cites research that estimates that by 2020 the more tech savvy among us could have up to 50 connected devices on average in our homes. Comcast believes there is a correlation here, too.
“We we do see is that people who use Xfinity in the home tend to have more devices,” said Chris Satchell, Comcast’s chief product officer, in an interview. “It’s not about, ‘can we sell you more IoT devices.’ Although we do produce cameras and so on, but one thing I like to think is that we’re adding value for the consumer. You’ve already got three cellphones connected, so this gives you another use for them.”
For Comcast, the strategy has been many years in the making: it kicked off back in 2014, when Comcast quietly acquired a startup called PowerCloud Systems, a PARC spinoff that had developed tech for people to monitor broadband usage in their homes. This became the basis of Comcast’s IoT monitoring and control strategy (as we predicted it would at the time).
Added to this were a couple of other acquisitions. In June 2016, Comcast acquired Icontrol Networks, a startup specialising in tech for home security and the Internet of Things. (Alarm.com also acquired aspects of Icontrol’s business.)
Then in September of last year, Comcast quietly acquired Stringify, an IFTTT-like platform that lets you create scripts to control some 500 different pieces of hardware — a large range that points to how Comcast intends to grow this service. While it didn’t talk about the deal much at the time, now Comcast says it will use it as a way of opening up its IoT platform to a wider selection of products and services. “The more our services integrate, the more you will see come together here,” said Satchell.
The service will essentially be the Comcast equivalent of many of the connected home services you may know about today. You wake up your system by saying “Xfinity” before you speak into the remote, and if you, for example, say “good night” to the device, you can turn off the lights in your house, turn off your TV and cable box, turn on the home alarm system, pause WiFi on devices, turn down the thermostat, and so on.
Notably, Comcast has no Amazon Echo- or Google Home- or Apple Home Pod-style speaker/hub for interacting with its IoT platform. Sources tell me that the company is not currently working on a product like this. Separately, I’ve heard it is in conversations with both Google and Amazon to potentially add a service through partnership. Comcast built its own AI-based voice interface for its IoT service, so it would be interesting to see how and what exactly would be integrated and used if it does opt for one of these as a partner.