The race is on to anchor the smart home. Office supply retailer Staples became an early entrant this morning with its announcement of Staples Connect. Comprising an app and a $99 wireless Connect Hub, Staples Connect is designed to give consumers a single point of control for their various connected household devices.
The force driving Connect is the growing number of formerly mundane products that now boast wireless connectivity. Products like the Philips Hue connected LED lightbulbs, Honeywell's Z-Wave Thermostat (as opposed to the more recent Honeywell Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat), and Bot Home Automation's wireless camera-equipped doorbell, DoorBot, have all helped make home automation accessible to consumers via affordable prices, wireless connectivity, and mobile-device-based control software. The problem is that because each device has its own app, and sometimes even its own wireless hub, each new smart device also introduces more control complexity for the consumer.
The promise of a product like Staples Connect is that it eliminates that complexity by funneling those devices through a single, broadly compatible wireless hub and into a centralizing mobile control app. Instead of the user installing multiple hubs and adjusting device settings among four or five different apps, Staples Connect will consolidate everything into one app, and one hardware hub.
For the Connect Hub, Staples turned to networking hardware manufacturer Linksys for the hardware, and Zonoff, a smart-home platform development company, for the iOS and Android mobile apps, as well as the cloud-based back-end software. The Connect Hub supports devices that transmit over Wi-Fi (although the Hub is not a Wi-Fi router), Z-Wave, and Lutron's ClearConnect wireless standard. It will also support Philips Hue lightbulbs in software. For now you still need to use a Philips ZigBee-based Bridge wireless hub to get the Hue bulbs on your network, although a Staples rep told me it might support ZigBee and other wireless standards via power outlet-based expansion modules if future demand calls for it.
Broad compatibility will be one key to the success of Staples Connect. Staples says it will support connected devices from well-known vendors like GE, Honeywell, and Philips on the Connect Web site. A company spokesperson also told me you'll find other Connect-compatible vendors selling motion sensors, moisture detectors, and other devices when Staples launches Connect this coming November. Not every connected device vendor wants in on Staples' network though, and the company pointed to Wi-Fi-thermostat vendor Nest as one prominent holdout.
Another challenge for Staples: differentiation. The receiver that comes with Logitech's Harmony Ultimate Remote can control Philips Hue bulbs. The Revolv Hub, coming later this fall, promises essentially the same functionality as the Connect Hub.
Hands-on with the Bot Home Automation DoorBot
Staples' $99 hub has already set itself apart from the $299 Revolv on price. But even if Revolv didn't exist, it's not hard to imagine a crush of these devices coming to market to cash in on the smart-device boom. Price, product compatibility, and app design might help set a product apart. Staples also cites its business clientele as an advantage. With Staples Connect, the company says it can now add complete smart-device packages to its office services menu.
If you're not ready to buy in to Staples Connect, you can try it out when Staples rolls out its in-store demo kiosks in November. You can expect our full review of Staples Connect at that time, too.