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The little smart home platform that could

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How do you solve the problem of growing a popular smart home platform committed to open-source, open-standard ideals into something bigger that stays true to those ideals? You create a foundation. At least, that’s the approach Home Assistant founder Paulus Schoutsen has chosen. 

This week, Home Assistant announced it is now part of the Open Home Foundation. The newly formed non-profit will own and govern all of Home Assistant and its related entities. Its creators and inaugural board members — Schoutsen, Guy Sie, Pascal Vizeli, and J. Nick Koston — all work on Home Assistant, and the foundation has no other members so far.

In a press release, the foundation stated its aim is “to fight against surveillance capitalism, and offer a counterbalance to Big Tech influence, in the smart home — by focusing on privacy, choice, and sustainability for smart home users.”

The Open Home Foundation is the new owner of Home Assistant.
Image: Open Home Foundation

A community-built, open-source smart home platform, Home Assistant differs from its major “big tech” competitors — such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home, because it offers four things simultaneously: local control of your smart home that can be faster and more reliable than the cloud: authority over and access to all your data; compatibility with almost every connected gadget — regardless of protocol or manufacturer; and the ability to make them work together. While many competitors offer some of these, few offer all. 

“I want to make it clear what our intentions are to the world: That we’re driven by a higher goal than money. And that we are not for sale.”

Home Assistant is known for its unmatched power and flexibility, but so far the platform, which has an estimated one million users, has struggled to reach the mainstream. Home Assistant can have a steep learning curve, especially when compared to the relative simplicity of a platform like Alexa or Apple Home. Onboarding devices can be complicated, the UI has lots of room for improvement, and integrations can be hit or miss.

“Home Assistant is no one’s first smart home platform,” says Schoutsen. “When people outgrow their existing systems and want more advanced control, that’s when they come to Home Assistant.” But he sees that the platform is at a tipping point.

With the arrival of the industry-backed smart home standard Matter (with which Home Assistant is heavily involved), smart home adoption is pushing into the mainstream. Home Assistant wants to stay swimming alongside Apple, Amazon, Samsung, and Google, all of which it’s been competing with in the smart home for roughly a decade now. Home Assistant has never accepted investors, says Schoutsen, and he sees a foundation as the best way to grow.

Schoutsen outlined the platform’s future roadmap at its annual State of the Open Home presentation on Saturday, April 20th. In an interview ahead of the live stream, he told The Verge about some of the bigger changes planned for Home Assistant following this transition:

  • The Home Assistant Green smart home hub will be sold on Amazon this year, the first time the organization will sell directly to consumers. A new line of Home Assistant Connect dongles for Thread / Zigbee and Z-Wave will follow. These connect the hub to gadgets that use those protocols (and will replace the SkyConnect dongle). 
  • The Home Assistant Works With program, which offers certification for products that work with the platform, is expanding. New partners include Aqara, Ultraloq, and Jasco.
  • A new Home Assistant voice control hardware device running Home Assistant’s local smart home voice assistant is planned for release at the end of the year.
  • Home Assistant is working with Nvidia to incorporate a local AI model into the home automation platform.
  • The platform has been researching ways to improve its UI to make it easier for everyone in the home to use Home Assistant. It’s calling this the “Home-approval factor,” a variant on the wife- or spouse-approval factor that encompasses everyone in a home.

(See sidebar for more on these.)

Works With Home Assistant badges are starting to appear on products to show that a product is certified to work with Home Assistant.
Image: Home Assistant

The collective goal of all these efforts is to move Home Assistant toward becoming a more mainstream, out-of-the-box option for smart home users. “We want to be a consumer brand,” says Schoutsen. “You should be able to walk into a Home Depot and be like, ‘I care about my privacy; this is the smart home hub I need.’”

The foundation will also advocate for the development of “better” smart home products, says Schoutsen, “Devices with local APIs and that are built sustainably. Because there needs to be products compatible with Home Assistant that you can trust.”

Is Home Assistant all grown up now?

Schoutsen, who started Home Assistant in 2013 with a Philips Hue smart lighting bridge, a Python script, and a mission to control his lights any way he wanted to, sees the foundation as necessary to both protect Home Assistant and move it forward. “I want to make it clear what our intentions are to the world: That we’re driven by a higher goal than money. And that we are not for sale,” he says. The new ownership structure provides a stronger platform for growth. “It gives us a way for people to take us seriously, to help us reach a bigger audience,” he says.

To date, the informal way Home Assistant operates has been confusing to companies looking to partner with the platform, says Schoutsen. The launch of the for-profit Nabu Casa five years ago provided a revenue stream for Home Assistant through an optional cloud computing service that now supports 33 full-time employees.

The foundation, which was created last month as a Verein (“association”) in Switzerland, formally separates Nabu Casa from Home Assistant. The foundation will own all of the open-source projects, standards, drivers, and libraries associated with Home Assistant, along with ESPHome, ZigPy, and Wyoming.

Nabu Casa will continue as a for-profit entity running the cloud and selling Home Assistant hardware and will operate as a commercial partner of the foundation. “Funding and support can only flow one way—from Nabu Casa, and any future partners, to the Open Home Foundation and its projects,” says Pascal Vizeli, co-founder of Nabu Casa, and a foundation board member. 

It also protects Home Assistant from being sold. Swiss law prohibits members of a non-profit Verein from benefiting from it, Schoutsen explained to The Verge. “Our articles state ‘There will be no direct distribution to members in return for activities performed for the association or as any other form of gratuity in any kind,’’’ he says. Similarly, he says the foundation can only have income from membership fees, donations, license programs, and contributions from partners.

The Open Home Foundation’s principles are Privacy, Choice, and Sustainability in the smart home. 

Still, Home Assistant users may be wary of these larger structural changes. The Verge asked Schoutsen how he could assuage any fears that this will negatively impact current users. It’s hard not to draw parallels with SmartThings’ shift to become a more “consumer-friendly” platform following its purchase by Samsung.

“We’re constantly doing this balance between ease of use and advanced features and I don’t know how we are going to keep balancing this,” he said. “But we cannot forget about our power users. The platform is open; maybe at some point, there might be a split where we have the basic UI and the advanced UI; I don’t know how that’s going to work. But because we are open, because our data is accessible, they’re all part of the community, even if they don’t use our specific tools that we’re building.” 

“There’s a bigger audience that I would like to reach that we don’t today.”

He is also wary of entering the business side of the smart home while recognizing its necessity to grow Home Assistant. “We need to be very careful moving into this space,” he says. “The challenge with partnership people is that they’re very business-focused. And that’s not how we operate.” 

He hopes the foundation will provide the necessary building blocks for growth while protecting the platform’s core beliefs and values. “I think we can get even bigger now that we have this stepping stone. The foundation is a real entity. People will take us more seriously. I think the press will take us more seriously. There’s a bigger audience that I would like to reach that we don’t today.”

While today’s mainstream smart home platforms offer simple and convenient ways to control your smart lights, locks, and other gadgets, the lack of access to your data, limited options for local control over devices, and some platforms’ over-reliance on the cloud can put the user at a disadvantage.

Matter — which aims to bring local control and interoperability across all smart home devices and platforms—is designed to solve some of these problems. But Matter isn’t a platform; you’ll still need to use an app on your phone or computer to control your home. Home Assistant wants to be that app. 

Can it move fast enough? There’s a long road between forming a foundation and packing Home Depots with Home Assistant hubs and gadgets that pledge Home Assistant loyalty. In the meantime, Matter is also providing other platforms — such as Aqara, Homey, and Hubitat — the tools to expand and grow into more viable alternatives to big tech in the smart home. It’s going to be interesting to see where everything lands. 



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