We’ve previously written about smart hardware platforms in China, most of which come from the big Chinese internet companies. They all want the newly emerging smart gadgets and home appliances to be compatible with their platform – for instance, WeChat, the leading Chinese mobile messaging app, has released an API for connected hardware that enables users to remote control smart devices through WeChat public accounts.
For the traditional home appliance and hardware industry, hiring some developers to build software is easy, but having the devices work well with application software isn’t. For the software developer-turned hardware manufacturers, most of them need to learn about electronic parts and industrial design from scratch, which is no easy task.
Here come third parties with experience in both hardware and software development who can bridge this knowledge and experience gap. Within this burgeoning sector, friendly competition is expected for who will be the “MediaTek for the smart home”. (Taiwan-based MediaTek largely fuelled the mobile phone boom in mainland China with its cutting edge system-on-a-chip technology).
Many Chinese companies have come up with solutions for the smart home or internet-of-things (IoT) in general. But there’s a big difference between the demands for this smart era and the mobile solutions by MediaTek. Since traditional hardware products now get connected, they keep generating data. So the newly emerged solution providers don’t only provide WiFi solutions but also cloud storage and data analysis services.
More than one company I’ve talked to said they would not be afraid of competition in the near future, but thought their near-term competitors would be traditional manufacturers who think they could manage it on their own. They think those traditional manufacturers would eventually turn to them.
Here are three companies I’ve talked to.
Last month Gizwits launched a programmable microcontroller board. It saves time and effort for developers who want to build intelligent hardware products with basic functionality. Developers are also able to develop WeChat-based software for their hardware products with the solution.
The company started up in 2010 working on toys that get connected through Bluetooth. Confident that they had talent experienced in both software and hardware development, the company decided to help businesses who want to “smartize” their existing hardware products. The project was officially launched in January this year.
Before the board, Gizwits was developing customized solutions for businesses. Now, with the microcontroller and the software development platform, the company has begun charging customers based on the number of devices they ship.
Gizwits also provides cloud storage service (working with Alibaba’s Aliyun and Tencent’s Cloud services), statistics and analytics, among others.
The company claims it has had some 200 clients, from Chinese home appliance manufacturers to newly emerged smart gadgets, that now are supporting some 2 million devices. Gizwits raised multi-million dollar funding from Matrix Partners China recently.
Ayla Networks, the Silicon Valley-headquartered internet-of-things solution provider, is betting that China will eventually overtake the U.S. to “lead the world in the internet-of-things“. Ayla has set up an office in Shenzhen, China’s electronics manufacturing hub, and introduced Chinese shareholders. Its China operations are led by Philip Chang, who lives in the U.S. but originally comes from China, and so far most team members are Chinese.
Founded in 2010, Ayla Networks provides software development tools and support services similar to Gizwits’. To better serve Chinese customers, Ayla works with Aliyun, the cloud service division of Alibaba Group, and will adopt Amazon China’s services later on.
Since its establishment just half a year ago, Ayla China has won a few Chinese clients: NexTurn is a brand for smart home products newly established by Shenzhen-based Yifang, one of the top tablet providers in the U.S. market; Devotion, a Chinese electric heater manufacturer whose products are exported to many overseas markets, has also adopted Ayla’s solution. For Chinese IoT product brands, Ayla is likely a better choice if their products are aimed at the U.S. market.
Also, Ayla is working on the WeChat solution that has built a “smart” conference room in which almost everything, from appliances to the curtains, can be controlled through a WeChat public account. Every user of the meeting room can sign up to the WeChat public account by scanning a QRcode.
There have been a number of WiFi solution providers in China, such as Shanghai-based MXCHIP and Shenzhen-based Orvibo. But Broadlink has drawn much attention thanks to partnerships, or disputes, with Chinese Internet companies.
Broadlink‘s big plan is making all kinds of smart home gadgets for consumers and solutions for businesses.
It started off with WiFi to infrared adapters that enable control over home appliances through Android or iOS apps. Since 2013, the company has launched a variety of WiFi gadgets for smart home, from smart plug to air quality monitor.
With self-designed and -developed WiFi modules, Broadlink has developed customized solutions for Chinese home appliance manufacturers to transform their products into intelligent devices. To support its own products and the third-party, the company also has built an infrastructure for cloud storage and related services.
Broadlink has raised funding from Chinese online retail giant JD.com and internet company Qihoo 360, hoping the former to help it earn more sales online.
Broadlink’s flagship WiFi-to-infrared adapter was added as an accessory to Xiaomi smart WiFi routers several months ago, and it was expected the Broadlink WiFi solution would be embedded into the next generation of Xiaomi routers. But the partnership would shortly fall into disrepair, with Broadlink accusing Xiaomi for dumping them and copying its products.
Speaking of Xiaomi, the controversial Chinese smart device maker, it unveiled a WiFi module for the smart home this July. It is reported that the Xiaomi solution was developed by the team of Wifi.io, a WiFi solution developer Xiaomi acquired in April this year.
Earlier this month, Xiaomi released four smart home products, with three of these from third-party companies. The fourth, a smart plug, is reportedly by a joint venture between Shanghai-based LongCheer and Xiaomi. Xiaomi’s plan is to have as many connected products on its online store and integrated with MIUI, the customized Android system pre-loaded in its mobile devices and integrated with the rest Xiaomi products, as possible.
Currently Xiaomi provides cloud services to end-users. It won’t be very difficult for it to provide smart hardware-facing Cloud offerings. It can be done either by its partner companies like Kingsoft or by investing in a company.