Google (finally!) buys a smart home hub with Revolv


So Google has finally made the obvious IoT acquisition, after paying $3.2 billion for a connected thermostat called Nest. After that purchase, we were left wondering what Google was planning on using to coordinate its inevitable smart home ecosystem. Now with the purchase of the all-in-one smart home hub Revolv – and its development team for an undisclosed sum – Nest’s smart home platform looks to have found its coordinating link.

And yet this is the purchase it should have made in the first place – after all, what use if the thermostat if it can’t talk to the HVAC systems or window blinds? While Nest does have some wireless communication, the Revolv hub has one of the most comprehensive radio collections in the smart home game. We get the feeling, however, that the Revolv acquisition will have cost Google a lot more in the wake of the Nest purchase.

Had it picked up Revolv before its $3.2 billion Nest buy, we think it would have spent a lot less on Revolv than it likely has – and that amount has not been disclosed to the public. So far, Google has spent close to $3.8 billion on its smart home ecosystem, with the $555 million purchase of Dropcam and its WiFi, cloud-connected cameras. The Revolv buy has certainly pushed that total well above $4 billion.

So what is Revolv? Well, it is a company based in Boulder, Colorado, that makes a namesake red teardrop-shaped hub. But according to Nest, the hub is not what the team was after with the acquisition, as the Revolv hub is being immediately discontinued – probably a good thing considering its hefty $300 price tag and dated aesthetics. Nest’s main target was, instead, the Revolv development team.

The hub’s only port was a line-in for the mains power, which meant that it didn’t have to be located next to the wireless router in the home – as is the case with most other home automation products that require an Ethernet line into the gateway to access the home network. An interesting feature was the hub’s pulsed-light messaging that paired it to an iOS or Android device, where users placed their phones on top of the hub and let the app flash the data to the hub to link the two.

The hub used 2.4GHz WiFi, Z-Wave, ZigBee (after a firmware update), Insteon’s 915MHz, and other 900MHz and 400MHz radio bands. But the hub still required the home-owner to have a separate WiFi router in the home, unlike the similar-spec Almond+ all-in-one smart home wireless gateway from Securifi.

Nest’s co-founder Matt Rogers has high praise for his newly acquired colleagues; the main target of the purchase. “When it comes to home wireless and home communication, this is the best team out there. They’ve been in this industry for about a decade.” The new staff will be brought into the fold on Monday, being put to work in the Works with Nest division, and working with third party developers to bring new devices into the emerging Nest platform.

Rogers added that Nest had been working closely with 30-40 companies and around 4,000 developers, as part of the move to boost the Nest platform. This week alone, Nest has added support for the Pebble smartwatch to let owners of the wearable control their thermostats from their wrists, as well as support for the Rachiro’s Iro smart sprinklers, Ivee’s voice control system, and the Life360 family-tracking software platform. It should be noted that news of the Revolv acquisition was listed at the bottom of the blog post in which the above additions were mentioned, and looks like a rather half-hearted attempt to downplay the purchase.

“It isn’t about turning Works with Nest into a business,” noted Rogers. “It’s about building the platform so that other people can build their businesses on it. We’ll sell more Nest products into a richer ecosystem.” This will be an ecosystem undoubtedly centered around Nest’s brainchild – Thread.

The Thread protocol itself is based around the IEEE 802.15.4 standard, which covers mesh networking. This is the same standard on which ZigBee and 6LoWPAN are based, and because Thread is heavily based on 6LoWPAN it aims to support IPv6 from the off, while ZigBee is retroactively adding support for IPv6 – which will support enough unique IP addresses to allow trillions of devices to be individually addressed over the web, should you desire.

But we aren’t convinced that Nest will try to incorporate the all-in-one radio approach into its thermostat, as not everyone will need or want to buy a thermostat for a smart home. Instead, it seems much more likely that Nest will produce a dedicated hub if it wants to pursue the all-in-one approach for its whole-home ambitions.

Doing so would give Nest the chance to create a smart home that talks directly to its components, and not from one node to another via a datacenter off in the cloud somewhere. This direct link means that the smart home services should enjoy much better resiliency as their communications would not be solely dependent on third parties.

As such, the smart home should tick along nicely even if its internet connection, or a third party service, suffers a temporary outage – which could also have major security benefits if the only external connections required are remote control and monitoring from the user away-from home and from secure software and device updates from the vendors. If there is a heavily protected and secure pipeline into the home, it should mean that remote hacking isn’t possible or is extremely hard to accomplish – although there’s still nothing stopping someone showing up and kicking in your smart-locked door or windows. It remains to be seen whether giving every device in the smart home an IPv6 address is a boon or a blight to secure, but keeping points-of-failure to a minimum is necessary.

With this purchase, the warmup for the smart home showdown continues. Alongside Nest, and also a member of the Thread Group, Samsung acquired the small but mature SmartThings smart home platform for $200 million, giving it an established ecosystem to leverage. Elsewhere, Apple’s HomeKit ambitions have yet to be revealed– with the HomeKit protocol now in iOS 8 and the Apple TV perfectly poised to become a smart home hub.