Google’s Nest changes risk making the smart home a little dumber

This week, Google announced that it would be integrating the Nest brand into its broader line of Home products, essentially making Nest the brand for every smart home gadget it sells. As part of this integration, Google’s Home speaker and smart display products will now carry Nest branding and have Nest features.

But in addition to the rebranding, Google announced that it will be discontinuing the Works with Nest program at the end of August, dismantling a set of controls that allow other device manufacturers and service providers to integrate with the Nest ecosystem of devices. Instead, Google will offer a new Works with Google Assistant program, one that will force companies to support the Google Assistant if they want their customers to be able to integrate with Nest products at all. If you want any other product to play nice with your Nest ones, you’ll need to have a Google account.

But more importantly, it may indicate a future where fewer cross-compatible smart home gadgets exist, period — one where you have to buy your components from Google or its approved partners to have them work together at all.

Nest Cam IQ

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Google says it is making this move in the name of privacy; that by eliminating the Works with Nest program, third-party devices will have far less access to the data captured by Nest’s various smart thermostats, smoke detectors, cameras, alarms, and future products, and thus fewer potential opportunities for abuse. Variety reports that Google plans to give “a small number of thoroughly vetted partners access to additional data,” but the company hasn’t elaborated on who those partners are or what devices or services they provide at this time.

Privacy, especially in the smart home, has been a hot-button topic of late, and it’s something Nest itself has had to wrangle with recently. With so much personal, identifiable data being captured by the many connected devices that can be installed in a home, locking down access to that data makes sense and is ostensibly a good move for consumers. It takes just one stranger talking to your baby through your connected security camera to make you want to rip every connected device out of your home.

The flip side of these greater privacy restrictions is it will likely be far more difficult to integrate a Nest thermostat into a broader smart home plan once Works with Nest goes away. A smart home is most useful and helpful when you can integrate all kinds of sensors, devices, and services together to perform automations. Imagine a home where venting, lighting, locks, and more are automated based on where people are within the home at any given moment. Those sorts of automations, by necessity, require a lot of data input to know whether you’re home, what you’re doing in your home, and how the home can adapt and react to better suit your needs.

Google says that the Assistant works with more than 3,500 home automation brands and over 30,000 devices right now. But if you’ve ever tried to set up complex automations across a wide range of devices using the Google Assistant app, you’ll know how easy it is to reach the limits of what you can do.

The Works with Nest program has been around since 2014, and many device makers integrated their products with it. That now means thousands of devices and services are in limbo with no guarantee all of them will be ported into the Works with Google Assistant program, either because their developers don’t have the resources to rewrite their integrations or because Google won’t offer the same amount and types of data to third parties anymore.

SimpliSafe’s home security system
Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge

Today, companies like Lutron, SimpliSafe, and others make use of Nest’s home / away states to control things like lighting, smart blinds, home security systems, and more. Some of these larger companies are hopeful that they’ll be able to bring all of their existing features over when they shift fully to the Google Assistant program later this year, but they can’t give their customers any real guarantee that things won’t change significantly.

A notice emailed to Lutron customers after Google’s announcement said that the ability to automate lighting functions based on the Nest’s home and away status, person alerts from Nest cameras, or smoke or carbon monoxide detection from a Nest Protect will be affected by the change. It will also remove the ability to control the Nest thermostat from within the Lutron smartphone app.

“We look forward to working with Google on their Works with Google Assistant program to determine the best way to take care of our joint customers and maximize the Lutron user experience,” Matt Swatsky, vice president of residential mid-market business for Lutron, tells The Verge.

Similarly, SimpliSafe customers will lose the ability to directly control a Nest thermostat based on SimpliSafe’s alarm status or see their current home temperature from within the SimpliSafe app. “For example, people might have their thermostat turn down every time they set their alarm to “Away” so as not to heat an empty house in the winter,” says SimpliSafe CEO Chad Laurans. Now, they’ll need a workaround using Google Assistant to schedule both the thermostat and the alarm system. “Instead of SimpliSafe interacting with Nest, it’s both SimpliSafe and Nest interacting with Assistant,” he says.

Services like If This Then That (IFTTT), which support a wide variety of smart home gadgets and services, also allow you to link actions together over the web to perform handy, complex automations. But IFTTT is one of the specific pieces of an interoperable smart home that Google says is going away: once Works with Nest is shut down, IFTTT support will end entirely.

The downside of IFTTT, in Google’s eyes, is that its wide-open design and compatibility makes it too cavalier with your data, and it’s impossible for Google to control where the data is shared and support IFTTT at the same time. Google says it is working on enabling many similar functions and automations through the Google Assistant, but it’s likely that there will be outliers or obscure ones that just aren’t available after the shutdown. IFTTT had a whole DIY smart home community behind it, experimenting with ways to link devices, but Google and its small array of approved partners can’t be expected to spend the same amount of time.

IFTTT isn’t the only set of DIY integrations that will be going away. Tinkerers have used Nest’s relatively open APIs to build all sorts of things that weren’t officially supported by device manufacturers. An example of this is Samsung’s SmartThings, where the company never officially supported Nest’s thermostat or other devices on its platform. But the community of home-brew developers built unofficial integrations that allowed SmartThings customers to access data from their Nest thermostats and use it to control other devices that SmartThings does support. It’s safe to say that those types of integrations will no longer work at all once Works with Nest shuts down.

And if Google’s willing to restrict access to its allies — the SimpliSafes and Lutrons of the world — what might it be willing to do to its competition? Amazon’s Alexa assistant currently has two Works with Nest skills that allow it to control Nest thermostats and cameras through voice commands to Echo speakers. As a direct competitor, it’s highly unlikely that Google will offer support for Alexa controls in the new Works with Google Assistant program. “We are still working on ways for our customers to continue to use other systems with their Nest products after account migration and when the Works with Nest service shuts down,” said a Google spokesperson when asked about which partners will have deeper access.

Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge

Nest’s smart thermostats are often gateway drugs into the larger smart home ecosystem, but soon they could be gateway drugs for a more closed-off Google ecosystem instead. It doesn’t take much of a leap to imagine a future where you’ll have to buy a Nest security system, Nest cameras, Nest doorbells, and more if you want a Nest thermostat at the center of your home, and you may need to think ahead and weigh that possibility before you buy a Nest product now. “When you entrust the integrity of your actual home to a company, you want to know they won’t pull the plug on you,” says SimpliSafe’s Laurans.

Consumer choice doesn’t benefit from restrictions on interoperability, of course. Even assuming you’re interested in buying exclusively Google Nest-branded gear for your home, Nest’s other products are often lacking and don’t provide as comprehensive a suite of features as competing products, not to mention being more expensive.

Nest doesn’t offer any battery-operated cameras or doorbells, nor does the Nest Secure home security system offer any sort of fire monitoring service, even though Nest itself makes connected smoke detectors. An open, or more widely supported, platform would allow a customer to select a Nest thermostat, a SimpliSafe security system, an Amazon Echo, and a battery-operated Ring Doorbell to match their home’s needs and their own wants best. Ring doesn’t currently integrate with Nest devices; this week’s announcement means it probably never will.

Homes are perhaps the most unique and personalized things in our lives, more so than cars, phones, or even computers. Each home’s and family’s needs, priorities, and schedules are different than another’s, which means there needs to be as much flexibility among the various smart home vendors and device makers so homeowners can customize their systems accordingly. Otherwise, the smart home will never truly be as smart or as helpful as it could be.

Google is right that privacy is a huge concern with smart home gadgets, perhaps more than with any other modern device. But we asked for a privacy fence, and it looks like what we’re getting is a walled garden.

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