‘We’re competitors but willing to work together’

Home Connectivity Alliance (HCA) president and head of IoT at Samsung Yoon Ho Choi talks to us about the brave new world of connected home tech.

Yoon Ho Choi is head of the Home Connectivity Alliance. Picture: HCA

HCA was launched in 2021 and the HCA Interface Specification 1.0 came out this January. Can you tell me a little about what took place in the intervening two years to make the January launch possible? What was the timeline that led to HCA 1.0?

HCA was incorporated in 2021 and publicly launched in January 2022 at CES. We had an aggressive timeline from launch of the organization to releasing our first specification in just one year (at 2023 CES). After publishing our spec, a few of the member companies are accelerating their spec adoption timelines. At IFA 2023, LG, Samsung, and Vestel announced that they will be commercially launching HCA integration before the end of the year. This is a testament to the hard work and dedication of our Board, Working Groups, and the support of our member companies.

The obvious comparison for HCA 1.0 is the Connectivity Standards Alliance's Matter standard. Can you tell me how much you drew inspiration/insight from the Matter launch and - crucially - how the two standards differ?

HCA is complementary to other established industry trade organizations in the connected home space, including CSA, and many HCA members are also members of these organizations. HCA and Matter both want to provide connected home interoperability for consumers. However, HCA’s focus is on large, long-life appliances and it approaches interoperability from an appliance and HVAC manufacturer’s perspective. This focus on large products is what guides HCA in a wide range of attributes, from the connectivity technology we choose to how we communicate to the end consumers. We are working very hard to not duplicate the work being done by other organizations, as fragmentation is counterproductive to everyone in the industry.

HCA, like CSA and their Matter standard, are concerned with interoperability. Are there any differences technologically or logistically in bringing interoperability to large appliances compared to other IoT devices?

Long-life appliances and HVAC systems present unique and complex challenges, like the need to support our consumers for decades to physical safety issues from moving parts. I believe there are three distinct areas that we need to consider for large appliance IoT. First, we need to take a long-term approach, because many appliances remain in the home for multiple years. Before they are connected, they are devices that help our consumers with their daily chores and provide comfort. The need to support legacy devices is important, since they are devices we count on every day and are large investments consumers have made. Second, due to the nature of their functions, these appliances consume a large portion of the energy bill, and it is important that we orchestrate the multiple brands of appliances in the home for optimized energy savings. Lastly, since HCA is a global organization, there are different regulatory and governmental regulations to contend with related to safety, energy management, and privacy. The context of these attributes creates unique requirements for large appliances.

HCA membership includes many of the biggest names in home appliances. How did you go about recruiting all these top brands to be part of the project?

All our members believe in HCA’s mission and saw various gaps within the standards space where complex home appliance requirements were not adequately addressed. The founding members of HCA also wanted to leverage their collective expertise to ensure that their consumers’ needs from a safety, security, and usability perspective are fully considered within the connected home interoperability standards. We are all competitors but in this growing space, we are willing to work together toward defining new ways to serve our consumers. We believe that this pro-competitive environment makes each of the companies stronger and they are able to return more benefits to our consumers.

There are some notable absences from the list of the members including Bosch & Thermador and Whirlpool. Do you eventually hope to extend membership to include all the big players in the large appliances market?

We invite all appliance manufacturers to join HCA and contribute together in realizing the interoperable smart home ecosystem. As mentioned, we take a long-term approach and look forward to seeing other leaders from our industry to join us.

The interoperability used in HCA 1.0 is cloud-to-cloud via WiFi. Can you tell me why you chose to develop it with cloud-to-cloud implementation?

HCA selected C2C Interoperability because it allows the appliances to communicate through the manufacturer’s cloud, rather than through a hub or other device. This ensures that the manufacturers of these long-life devices can continue to serve our consumers through warranties, support and updates to features over time. Another important benefit of C2C Interoperability includes inclusion of legacy devices into the ecosystem. It’s one thing to replace a light bulb, it’s a different level of investment to replace large appliances in your kitchen. We want to make sure our consumers can enjoy the benefits through the devices they already have in their homes. For manufacturers, C2C provides a path to lower development costs and faster adoption. HCA isn’t exclusive to C2C, but for now, it makes sense for our appliances and consumers.

How much of a factor was the need to collect device data in the decision to make the standard cloud-to-cloud?

HCA provides a common framework (data models and API) between multiple brands only and does not collect data. The manufacturers who connect their appliances to the apps and cloud are the ones who manage and protect the consumer data. These companies are large global entities that use state-of-the-art, industry standard authentication, authorization and encryption along the whole channel. Since these appliances reside in the home for so long, cybersecurity and privacy are the top priorities for these companies. We welcome the recent efforts from governmental bodies to define rules for data usage and cybersecurity and will work with them to create safe paths to return the benefits of data back to our consumers.

What do appliance makers need to do to make their products compatible with HCA 1.0?

The HCA specifications are open-sourced to HCA members. To become a member and adopt the HCA specifications, companies can visit our website for more information about joining.

Can you explain how the HCA standard can help with energy savings?

Most consumers have multiple brands of appliances that they use in their homes. Since HCA has created a common specification for all brands to control and understand the state of these appliances, this enables opportunities to gain insights into the whole home. This allows cross-industry partners like energy aggregators and utilities to work with a single specification rather than a unique specification for each manufacturer. It helps to make the impact on energy savings much larger since there is scale, development efficiencies, and more touchpoints for our consumers to participate. HCA members believe that when it comes to large, connected appliances, it’s more meaningful to consumers when the use cases go beyond simple remote controls to features that deliver tangible benefits, such as time and cost savings. This is why HCA is working hard to release its energy management specification as part of its 2.0 release in early 2024.

As I understand it, device interoperability for HCA 1.0 is limited to appliance manufacturer apps such as SmartThings and ThinQ but won't include other smart home platforms, such as Apple Home or Amazon Alexa. Could that change going forward?

HCA is open to everyone in the industry, but the members who have joined today are the manufacturers of large appliances. The current members are taking a thoughtful approach to prioritize the needs of our members and portfolio characteristics. Naturally over time, we expect other ecosystems to be part of or work with HCA interoperability.

A shorter version of this interview first appeared in the October issue of Consumer Electronics Test & Development magazine.