Lowe's wants to be your smart home gateway

For home improvement retailer Lowe's, the explosion in the Internet of Things has created a few challenges -- and a lot of opportunities.

For home improvement retailer Lowe's, the ongoing explosion in the Internet of Things has created a few challenges.

For example, thousands of home automation and security device makers all want Lowe's to sell their products. The problem: many don't want to share their Application Programming Interface (API) software with Lowe's, said Kevin Meagher, vice president and general manager of the company's smart home business unit.

Some device makers are trying to protect their APIs partly to protect their profits, but that approach doesn't help the homeowner, Meagher said in an interview at Super Mobility Week in Las Vegas. Home owners want to avoid having separate apps for every device; otherwise they'd have to show up at the doorstep and launch one app to turn on the lights, another to unlock the doors, yet another to control the thermostat.

To offer users a more unified smart home experience, Lowe's has been selling a smart home app and installation kit called Iris since 2012. The $179 kit has now reached "many tens of thousands" of customers and is sold in all of Lowe's 1,500 stores, Meagher said. It is designed to be plug-and-play and comes with a hub that connects to a user's home Wi-Fi. The kit includes three sensors, two door contacts and a keypad, but homeowners can buy other devices to connect to it, all controlled by the Iris app from a smartphone or tablet.

"We're pretty pleased with the response," he said. "We set out to solve one problem, to have an open platform where every device can connect. But a whole bunch of vendors don't want them to connect because it affects their business model. Some device vendors are starting to realize they need to open their APIs, but even then, most of them are doing crazy things like saying, 'The only way I'll share the API is if you talk to my cloud platform.'

"This is what I mean when I say things are getting a little cloudy," Meagher said. "It's challenging for us because that's not putting consumers first. "

Meagher argues that a retailer like Lowe's is in the best position to keep customers first because of decades of retail experience and because Lowe's buys $50 billion a year in home improvement goods that it resells to consumers.

With that kind of buying power, "we can make the rules and drive the standards and tell device makers, 'excuse me guys, we need to do this.' I just want to have a level playing field. I wouldn't want another standards body -- God knows there are plenty of those -- but we want open APIs. And if device makers encrypt their stuff, then tell us, so we can talk to the device."

Lowe's Iris will support any smart home device that connects over Wi-Fi, Zigby or Z-Wave.

Because Lowe's is in the retail business, Meagher argued it is closer to buyers wanting smart home products than the wireless carriers and cable companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast. "They find it is really hard to do retail...," he said. "It has taken us 70 years to get where we are."

Meagher said "there's a real battle going on" as to who will be the biggest smart home provider. Major retailers like Sears, Home Depot and Best Buy also sell smart home solutions. But those retailers are lined up against network technology providers entering the smart home marketplace.

"We sell things and that's all we sell and everything in the future is going to be connected," he said. "The question is whether technology companies can do retail faster than the retailers can do technology."

Despite his insistence on an open API, Meagher said Lowe's is willing to work with any vendor, and has already heard of some futuristic smart home applications from actual manufacturers.

For example, lawnmower makers are talking to Lowe's about using Iris to inform a homeowner when the oil in the mower in the garage needs to be changed. An inexpensive sensor in the lawnmower could monitor each time a sparkplug fires and for how long, to detect how many hours the mower has been in use.

Lowe's already sells 50 connected devices for its Iris system, but supports hundreds of others that run over Zigby, Z-Wave and Wi-Fi. "We have water leak detectors, Nest thermostats, GE light switches, Hunter ceiling fans. We're the big boys and we're creating a doorway for it all to happen. Next year we'll have air filters connected for your HVAC system."

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