Leaving the Nest: What's Microsoft doing in home automation?

Leaving the Nest: What's Microsoft doing in home automation?

Summary: Microsoft execs have said little about the company's home-automation strategy, but Xbox may be its centerpiece.


With Google's $3.2 billion (not a typo!) purchase of thermostat and smoke-detector-maker Nest, it's a good time to revist what Microsoft has cooking in the home-automation space.


According to at least one report, Google was the only serious bidder for Nest. That's not too surprising on the Microsoft side of the house, given the company's home-automation strategy seems to be centering on the server and/or console side of things.

Almost exactly a year ago, Microsoft quietly bought id8 Group R2 Studios to boost its Xbox business. R2 Studios was the brainchild of the creator of the Slingbox. But before the Softies bought R2, the company was working on mobile apps designed to tap into home-automation systems.

"Given Microsoft's mission to morph the Xbox from just a gaming console to the center of users' living rooms, the Xbox-home-automation tie-in makes sense," I blogged last January. It's not so far-fetched to envision a device running Microsoft's SmartGlass Xbox companion app controlling users' home appliances, HVAC systems and even a fridgetoaster. Add in a Kinect sensor, and, as some have found, you can control lights, open garage doors and do more with voice and gestures.

At the same time, Microsoft Research has been working on a project called "HomeOS" since at least 2010. Rather than controlling heating, air-conditioning and other home systems, HomeOS seems to be more about simplifying the connections and management of the many electronic gadgets and systems typically found in homes.

I don't know if any of Microsoft's Windows Embedded partners has created home-automation client devices running some flavor of Windows Embedded. Nor do I know if Microsoft or any of its developer partners has done work on a Windows 8 or Windows Phone app for controlling devices like Nest's.

As CITEworld's Mary Branscombe recently noted, Microsoft's Windows 8 is at risk for being shut out as a client in the whole "Internet of Things" realm. Many of the newest consumer-electronics include support for Android and iOS as clients, but not Windows 8. I'd wager that with Google now the owner of Nest, we're probably pretty unlikely to see an official Google-developed Nest app for any of Microsoft's platforms.

Update: There are a couple of just-released third-party Windows Phone apps for controlling Nest thermometers that are available for download from the Windows Phone Store. WellNEZted is .99, and Roost is $1.29.

Topics: Emerging Tech, Cloud, Google, Microsoft, Start-Ups, Windows


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • Don't worry about MS they are sleeping just fine

    after some years they will wake up and begin what they doing now; try to catch up ;)
    • too early

      I thought they were too early when they rolled out hOhm years ago. Maybe it's time to start this up again using Xbox as the hub.
  • Lack of trust in Microsoft

    Will only harm their image more, as the facts emerge. Why does an xbox "need to be left on 24/7, with an internet connection"? i would worry about the camera, being used to spy on users, and this could be used for nefarious purposes. But Microsoft care not, about the end users, just how much they can take from end users.
    I hate trolls also
    • ... What does that have to do with anything?

      Literally everything you said was FUD...

      Seriously, please read what you write before you post.

      The haters are out in full force today...
    • My daughter has a game box

      It's in her room of course. The thought of an always-on camera prevents me from buying her an XBox One. That is too creepy.
  • Once again Microsoft is

    trying to follow the pack, certainly not leading in anything home automation. This area would have been a no-brainer for MS a few years ago but they waited for Apple and Google to lead the way with mobile and home automation will certainly need to be controllable from mobile devices. Since MS can not control mobile what real chance do they have of dominating anything in home automation.

    And if you need to own an Xbox to use any home automation products they will sit on shelves in stores like the Surface RT.
    • Did you read the article?

      if you had you would know that this is a article about MS catching up, MS has been working on home automation a full year before Google bought nest. Then you state "Apple and Google to lead the way with mobile and home automation " can you name one product that apple makes in the home automation market and the ink isn't even dry on the nest deal. you draw a corollary between mobile devices and home automation "MS can not control mobile what real chance do they have of dominating anything in home automation" but what does one have to do with the other.
      • What good is reading without comprehension

        What I said is: Apple and Google to lead the way with mobile and home automation will certainly need to be controllable from mobile devices.

        If you would have finished reading to the end of the sentence your IQ rating would look a bit higher than a chimp.

        Yes, MS has been working on this a while just like they have been working on mobile devices. Obviously they have little to show for it.

        Once again Microsoft is trying to follow the pack and going nowhere fast.
    • As in tablets

      Microsoft leads the world in innovation, and then completely misses the freaking point.
  • Answering MJ's question about Windows embedded home automation

    Their are some third party Win embedded providers. Here is one:

  • Microsoft's concern is not being included

    Their concern is not being in charge and able to exclude others. No doubt Google will publish an open API and adhere to open standards that will allow Microsoft to attempt to compete on a level field. But once again Google is quick enough to not be "designed out" of the whole ecosystem.
    • Right...

      Just like Google has open source for everything. Ah no wait, Google is closed-sourcing code in every Android release. But yeah Google is open becouse they started that way. Perception is powerful force in the world. It makes sure change in mainstream always happens in a huge lag. This is also why Symbian kept Nokia the biggest phone vendor for years after many who kept their eyes open saw their destruction coming.
  • MS' various issues

    I think MS is in trouble. MS needs to establish its own retail network of stores, and stores in stores, across the globe, because I believe most salespeople have an anti MS / pro iOS / Android bias when it comes to sales. This is the reason I believe Nokia is having such a hard time selling higher end phones. If MS can get Barnes and Noble to sell its products, that would be wonderful as well. MS needs to establish a media network yesterday, because it is losing mindshare in the consumer market, as about 90% of tech media is anti MS. Also MS needs close partners that are committed to selling Windows oriented products, and only Windows oriented products in the consumer market. When MS gets non-committal partners, they wind up turning their attention to Android and ignoring Windows. That is such a waste of time. I think MS should get at least 3 OEMs committed to selling nothing but touch oriented Windows 8 PCs, and Windows Phones, in the consumer market. Then work on making the partnership profitable for everyone.

    One of the biggest stumbling blocks to Windows 8.x adoption, has been the lack of a Metro version of Office. Office 95 played a tremendous role in people understanding the benefits of the Windows 95' GUI interface - particularly in business. A lot of people simply do not understand the benefits of Windows 8.x in business, because of the lack of Metro Office. Also, MS needs to use Metro Office to drive adoption of Windows 8. MS needs to ignore people who keep telling it that it needs to come out with Office for iOS and Android. MS will make far more money if it uses Metro Office to drive users to Windows 8, than it will if it brings Office to other platforms. Getting people to adopt Windows 8 means more revenue from OEMs, more revenue from apps, more revenue from Office, more revenue from services etc.. I have to ask, does anyone believe that Windows server adoption would not have mattered, if MS released SQL Server, Exchange, and the company's myriad server products, on other platforms, as well as on Windows Server? Absolutely not! These products which sit on top of Windows Server, create a virtuous circle whose sales reinforce one another. Do you see Apple rushing to sell Garageband or many of its other software for Windows? No. Why is that? Because Apple knows full well that these apps reinforce the Apple platform, from which it makes the bulk of its money. Not even Google is bothering to make its service available through apps on the Windows 8.x / WP platforms. MS needs to stablilize its Windows 8 / WP sales before it worries about coming out with Office and other software for other platforms, which could very well be undermining Windows platforms sales.

    One other thing, MS needs to move a lot more quickly in the consumer market. It is taking too long to implement the Home OS concept, an integrated Xbox Live subscription based experience on the PC, etc. Everything it does seems to be so grand and slow to develop. MS needs to see a promising area of development, assign a group to deploy a solution quickly, work to conceptually and in other ways square things away with larger groups the project affects, and then implement the solution. The reason Google is beating you with Android, is because it is moving so quickly.
    P. Douglas
    • Continuing your rant...

      Most of the things you are talking about are being addressed... all be it far too slowly. And almost all of them are due to the fragmentation within MS which has caused so many of their great individual products to not be properly utilized or integrated into the MS ecosystem.

      MS is moving to a unified music/video ecosystem. Too rich for my blood, but most of xbox music and video are already implemented, and the plans to have further unification are in the works without the need of a central home server. Personally, I would rather there be a central home server for all of my (legally) ripped movies and music which could serve up content to a wide variety of devices... but the money is in content sales, not nice open platforms, so I don't think we can expect that any time soon.

      MS has retail stores, and they are supposedly going to be opening micro-stores within bigger stores. But have you been inside of a MS store? They are far better at scaring people off of the brand than getting people onboard. They really need to work on educating their employees, and improving customer service if they want it to take off.

      The issue with Nokia high end phones is a simple one and it has nothing to do with the OS or app availability: The issue is that the mainstream flagship device is the Lumia 920/925/928. Don't get me wrong, I own a 920 and absolutely love it for my uses, but I am hardly joe public, and this phone would be a hard sell on many people. It is only a duel core, only has 1GB of ram, 32GB of storage with no expansion options, it is far chunkier and heftier (though also indestructible!) than other similarly speced devices, and the only standout feature is the camera which has some competition now. Nokia has a few other offerings in the 1020 which is a niche device, and the 1520 which is a niche device, but the mainstream high-end offering is still a device that was a tough sale 14 months ago, and which has been far surpassed since then in many respects. The Lumia 929 looks like it may be a great device, but it is VZW only, and it is still not a direct replacement of the 920. So just on the hardware side alone it makes sense why they are not exactly selling themselves.
      On top of that come the issues of the OS: The WP8 reset was pretty rough on the hardware side of things, and it is pretty awful that WP7 was abandoned so completely and quickly (by both manufacturers and MS) which has left a lot of ill will. This whole last year has been all about getting the new OS to work on a wider variety of hardware at the expense of developing software features (Outside of the awesome features Nokia has brought to the table). And it is simple things getting in the way: No support for BT4LE until GDR3 is released which greatly limits accessory availability (and there is no better advertisement than free advertisement made by peripheral manufacturers). No nice ways to attach documents to an email within the email client. No secure business network options (hopefully coming in 8.1?). Large live tiles tend to only show one row of text when it can clearly show 2-3 lines of an email. A lack of folders (again, Nokia recently made an offering, but it is still buggy for many users). No native way to have easy access to often used settings like BT, WiFi, Screen brightness, etc. No separate system and app volume options (though individual app volume control options people are calling for sounds more like work than usefulness). And while I feel that the app situation is quite overblown, it is an issue for a lot of people, and even MS apps like Skype tend to have new feature releases on Android before their own native platform which should not happen. WP8 gets it right on a lot of big things: It is very stable, very fast, very kind to batteries in spite of often running on older processors, very good about data routing (so surprise bills!), and has a great interface overall... but it is the 1000 little things which add up to driving people away. In theory 2013 was the year of playing catchup on hardware, and 2014 will be the year of features and app maturity, but it is yet to be seen.

      Office has its own issues. There are plenty of free competitors available for basic use, and a few decent options for business use popping up that are reasonably priced. Meanwhile Office releases a rehash of a 6 year old piece of software with a face-lift and small handful of new features for niche users, essentially tipples the price of the home version (removing the 3PC install option), and is attempting to push everyone off into a cloud service. And don't get me wrong, Office365 is a decent service (I use it at work), and $100/yr is a justifiable price to pay for the full office suite on 5 devices... but I don't have 5 devices that I want to put office on, nor do I need the entire office suite! I have 2 desktops that need word, excell, outlook, and powerpoint, and there is no decent cheap option for this anymore. I would love to throw a bit of money at MS and update my version of office from 2007, but 2007 works 'good enough', and I don't have to shovel money at it to keep it working, so I (and a great many other people) will continue to not upgrade.

      Attached to office and windows 8 is the issue of MS accounts. Over the years, admittedly owing in part to my own shortsightedness, I have ended up with 3 different MS accounts with various features and services attached to each of them. MS offers no way to tie these accounts together, and some of these purchases and features are no longer available (such as GFW Live) so I am stuck with a fragmented mess. On top of that, I have 2 kiddos who will be getting on the computer soon. I would love to have a family pool of skydrive and other online services, but again MS account services are so stuck in the stone age that there is no nice way to add my wife to a family account, or for my kid's accounts to split off into normal accounts down the road when they eventually move out (and they WILL move out). For a company who is moving to more and more service based offerings, this absolutely has to be figured out if they expect to survive. I cannot throw money at music and video services that dramatically change platforms and policies every 2 years. I cannot throw money at game and app platforms that dry up after only 3 years. I love online content and distribution, but unless they are going to be as clear-headed and long-term about licencing as Steam or Amazon, then I will always be hesitant to buy from MS's online distribution sources.

      The last issue I will touch on here is Win8 itself. I hardly expect for Win8 to be free, but the days of a $140 OS (or more at retail!) needs to be laid to rest. The real money is in app sales and in-app adverts, and I think that the $40 I paid for win8 is a perfect sweet spot for a modern OS. It is low enough for me to justify upgrading it every few years, but enough where they will make at least a little money off of me if I don't participate much in Store apps. And if they want me to purchase store apps, then why not offer full desktop x86 applications in the MS Store? I would much rather get free add-ridden apps and utilities from the MS store than malware laden installers from download.com or some other god-forsaken website. And for the general public, it would be a Godsend to get apps from a filtered and relatively safe central location rather than feeling that they need to rely on shady or poorly designed websites to get the things that they want. Having metro apps running on the desktop is a cute idea... but having desktop apps in the MS store is something that I would be able to show more support for. I love the idea of live tiles and the metro start screen... but why take up the entire screen when a 5" phone sized menu would do the trick? I love the charms bar as a quick way to get to often used settings, but the rest of it is fairly useless. I really love the unified layout of PC Settings rather than the mess that is Control Panel and its 1000 sub-windows, but as of yet it lacks power user features. Metro is a great way to get the OS out of the way so that I can interact with apps with less distraction... it is just only almost useful rather than being actually useful, and so it goes unused.

      Again, a lot of this is being worked on, there are fixes, and rumors of fixes in the works. MS as a whole is starting to act more like a single company rather than a bunch of different companies sharing the same name, which they need to be applauded for. But what we are all wondering is if it is going to be enough, and come fast enough to keep them relevant. Android gets all of the small stuff right while ignoring the big stuff, where MS gets the big stuff right while messing up the details; and while I would rather live in a world where the big stuff is right and deal with the inconveniences of the little things, most people are not like me. If MS does not get their features and pricing fixed before Android/ChromeOS matures enough to work in a desktop PC environment effectively, then MS can kiss a lot of that stuff goodbye.
  • Meanwhile in the Enterprise

    Meanwhile in the Enteprise microsoft is making a killing. Just go look at the NRF show. It is very low key, but msft is making deals left and right. Moreover, Azure is positioning itself to run all those things in the home on the backend. You people need to stop following the headliness.
  • Beware of the sleeping giant!

    Keep in mind people, Microsoft have been around for a long time... Long enough to have already developed previous Smartphones, Watches, Home Automation systems etc... This recent trend of "New Products" from 10year old Android or Apples revolutionary innovative fingerprint scanner the list goes on, is all about selling to suckers! I see Microsoft taking its own path, not copying competition and not reading our emails in the process... Whether I like Microsoft or not is a different story, But they deserve a "hats off to them" for true innovation in my opinion. Not the unjustified slander from the uneducated! They aren't going anywhere for a long time yet and don't be surprised when they make these products for a second time around and they are of higher quality than the current "New Innovations"
  • MS already has a 100% home automation solution

    ... built within a strategic partnership with RWE.
    100% MS Stack, incl. cloud/mobile access, many devices, great user experience. It's currently sold in Europe only. They could buy it and present a fully integrated product withing months.

  • I still have to see home automation done right

    What I think it's necessary:
    Good price
    Current installation compatibility
    Platform agnostic
    Wired and wireless
    Complete and uniform - per example cameras can't operate in a completely different context.
    Without interest on windows mobile platforms, it will be very hard for Microsoft to build a desired solution around its platform.
  • Microsoft and the city of the future

    This article (http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/news/stories/88acres/88-acres-how-microsoft-quietly-built-the-city-of-the-future-chapter-1.aspx)

    is an interesting piece that looks at how Microsoft invented their own building management system to connect more than 30,000 sensor-enabled devices across their campus in Redmond. That system today collects more than 500 million data points per 24 hours, all on a system that they developed themselves. Research scientists have called their building management system one of the most sophisticated systems on the planet, and Microsoft has presented their system to hospitals, oil companies, cities, even the Pentagon.

    So that's cute that Google bought Nest. But if Microsoft decides home automation is a market that they want to get serious about, they'll be entering the space with significantly more in-house expertise than Google, Nest, or just about any other single vendor on the planet.
  • MS not a serious player

    MS has never been and will never be serious in the HA space. MS went down this road before with a couple of vendors creating Windows Media Center front ends to their controllers (i.e. HAI, mControl, HomeSeer, etc). The fact that the HomeOS project has been ongoing for nearly 4 years with no real products per se reinforces that.

    Overwhelmingly, the industry has chosen iOS as their platform of choice for front ending their controllers. Browse CEPro or Electronic House and notice that practically every vendor has an iOS and/or Android App for their system., you never see WP or Media Center or xBox.

    By purchasing Nest Labs, Google acquired a known and growing brand name in a space that will continue to grow. What will be interesting to see is with Google's backing will Nest continue to take on industry players like Lutron, Leviton, Crestron, etc with their own controllers, switches, etc..