Smart Home Protocols Are Confusing, But Here’s What You Need to Know

Smart Home Protocols Credit: Andrey_Popov
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Buying smart home devices comes with one particular headache – you also have to consider communication protocols and the different ways that these smart devices talk to each other (and if they’re even compatible).

Is this a problem with today’s smart devices? Good question! It certainly can be if a buyer jumps into the home automation world without any research.

But to makes things simpler, we’re going to sum up the key points about smart device protocols that you need to know heading into this new decade.

Old Smart Protocols Are Fading Away

When smart devices first showed up, manufacturers decided that they needed a wireless communication method specifically for low-power devices so they could communicate back to their hubs or other smart devices.

The two competing frequencies that eventually emerged were Zigbee and Z-Wave.

These communication protocols used radio waves, like our wireless home networks do, but they did not use the same frequencies as wireless internet.

This means they were only compatible with specific hubs that could communicate in those frequencies. At first, this held some advantages – there was lesser chance of interference. But consumers and manufacturers grew weary of dealing with an entirely independent protocol for smart devices, especially when there was another option everyone already had..

Now, Wireless Networks Are King

Today’s smart devices communicate on the same wireless network that your router produces for all connected devices around your home, typically on the 2.4GHz frequency.

When you plug in a smart device and open its app, it will automatically search for your wireless network, and you’ve probably already done this with at least once device.

As smart devices grew more efficient and their features grew more complex, it became easier to simply use the “IEEE 802” Wi-Fi protocol that everyone was familiar with.

This also helped smart devices connect to mobile devices directly (like your smartphone) without the need for a smart hub.

This is why, today, it’s difficult to find devices that use Zigbee or Z-Wave, although they are more common in older or more rugged smart devices.

Unfortunately, if a device only uses a protocol like Zigbee, it won’t be able to work with something like Google Nest Hub or the Home App.

Zigbee and Z-Wave Still Exist, in Limited Ways

As we mentioned, some devices still use the old protocols. Zigbee in particular has lingered in some devices since later versions did use Wi-Fi in some ways – and it’s an open standard, which is nice for certain brands. That’s why you’ll find that some devices still support it (and Z-Wave, too), including Philips Hue, Honeywell thermostats, the Wink hub, and limited devices from brands like Belkin, LG, and Yale.

However, the more modern smart devices become, the less likely they are to work with Zigbee or Z-Wave.

For example, among smart displays, only the Amazon Echo Plus has added Zigbee compatibility, and that’s virtually its only extra feature – an add-on you have to pay a bit more for. It’s hard to see these older standards surviving for long in the 2020s.

An Exciting New Smart Protocol Is Coming

To make matters more confusing, there’s a new smart device protocol in development, from companies including Amazon, Apple, Google, and the Zigbee Alliance (which has members from the boards of many electronics companies).

These brands are working on a new open-source protocol for smart devices that will work with everything and be compatible with all future smart devices – the current name of the project is “Project Connected Home over IP.”

Why not stick to using the wireless internet that everyone has? Well, this new protocol will be able to use Wi-Fi. Presumably, it will also be ready for Wi-Fi 6 and 5G. The collaboration also mentions security and reliability, so the new standard may have extra privacy and encryption options designed specifically for smart devices, which is a pretty good idea! And with all the big brands on board, representation won’t be a problem.

Will this universal standard end up replacing everything else? It’s too early to tell, but the 2020s is the decade to find out. Stay tuned.

Learn more about Apple’s HomeKit and the Home App here.

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