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Rethinking smart home gateways or: Why we need more user-friendly routers?

By Julio Franco
Sep 6, 2016
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  1. It’s the one piece of tech equipment we all have and use almost every day, yet, know very little about.

    I’m talking about your home broadband router/gateway. The non-descript black box likely installed somewhere in your abode by your cable or satellite service provider. In the early days of internet access, gateway boxes were often separate from both the TV service set-top box and a Wi-Fi router but today, it’s typically all consolidated together into a single unit.

    Very few people ever dive into the details of a gateway/router’s operation. The few who do are typically greeted with an arcane, browser-based interface loaded with networking buzzwords and engineering jargon. Most people view it as a set-and-forget, utility-focused device, not unlike the gas and power meters that denote where electricity enters your home.

    Yet, as we transition into a world where more and more connected devices are moving into our homes and our dependence on various internet-based services continues to grow, it’s becoming increasingly clear there needs to be a radical rethinking of what these devices do and, more importantly, how they operate.

    Instead of being relegated to a corner and untouched, a truly smart home gateway should be at the very forefront of any consumer’s tech experiences at home.

    Imagine this: a device that could leverage either its own sensors or even data from your other devices to physically map out your home, then show you where the connected devices are and what they’re doing. The device could potentially do this by either having you take a few pictures, shoot some video, or leverage the kinds of 3D-depth sensors that are being leveraged for augmented and/or virtual reality-based products.

    Even better, it should be able to physically and visually map out things like WiFi (or cellular) strength in different parts of your house. Because those can change, it should be able to do that on a dynamic basis. In fact, smart service providers could even leverage the data to suggest things like adding a WiFi extender for your upstairs bedroom or the basement office.

    On top of basic service quality questions, a redesigned gateway experience should be able to answer questions about why a particular service or device isn’t working. It’s not just that it has connectivity, but is it getting the kind of messages/data it should? Admittedly, this one would take a bit more standardization work because there would have to be agreement on devices sending out messages saying “this is what I need” and verification they were receiving it. Imagine having that capability—in plain English—in terms of helping people troubleshoot some of their common internet access-related issues.

    Another critically important capability that could build on these network traffic analysis skills would be related to privacy and security. Wouldn’t you like to know what kind of data is flowing into and out of your home? Again, this would have to be translated into understandable terms—which is challenging to do—but it could be very useful. Plus, intelligence built into the gateway/router could watch for and block potential security issues and could even be kept constantly up-to-date by leveraging some of the new pattern matching-based deep learning tools that are becoming available.

    As new devices and/or services are added to your home technology arsenal, this rethought gateway should leverage its visual map to show you where the new device and/or services are running, what other devices they may or may not be connected to, and whether or not they’re working properly. It’s easy to lose track of all the devices and services that people are adding and removing, so the gateway could also serve as a technology inventory that tracks everything and potentially reminds you to update, replace, or even pay for any used services.

    Given the critical role for-pay services are likely to have in future smart home and consumer Internet of Things (IoT) applications, this last capability could be a lot more important than it first appears.

    The bottom line is that, instead of being relegated to a corner and untouched, a truly smart home gateway should be at the forefront of any consumer’s tech experiences at home. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any vendors with products close to coming to market with the kinds of capabilities I’ve described, so this may all be a pipe dream for a while. I’m convinced, though, that the right kind of design and user experience could turn home gateways from basic necessary evils into the visual centerpiece of our future connected homes.

    Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm. You can follow him on Twitter . This article was originally published on Tech.pinions.

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  2. BSim500

    BSim500 TS Guru Posts: 199   +277

    If I were building a serious home security system, most of it wouldn't be going anywhere near the Internet.
    Um, surely you know where they are since you have to put them there? It's not like you forget where you installed the smoke alarm when you walk past it 20x per day or struggle to grasp that the front & back door entry sensors are generally installed on the front & back doors. As for discretely installed security sensors openly broadcasting their location, I think someone needs to go back to security school...

    Isn't that what router logs are for? Ironically routers are far easier to secure when you have only a few devices using them (ie, it's far easier to set up a MAC address whitelist of say 2x PC's, 3x phones and 1x streaming box than 800 gimmicky IoT devices all wanting Internet access purely for the sake of it...)
     
    Last edited: Sep 6, 2016
    psycros and Uncle Al like this.
  3. Uncle Al

    Uncle Al TS Evangelist Posts: 1,682   +787

    Ain't that the truth. To date, I know of no system that has remained untouched or unbroken, in fact those breach's have spawned quite an industry that continues to thrive and expand. Of course, if the original engineers and science minded folks had envisioned such complexity, perhaps they could have prevented it by a better front end .... then again, just how many inventions have not been improved, cracked, broken, or stolen over time?
     
  4. Raoul Duke

    Raoul Duke TS Guru Posts: 930   +354

    I do wish I understood more about my router. I know how to access it, how to turn Wi-Fi on and off and that's about it. So many more settings in there, but I feel like I have enough to do without having to learn all the technical stuff, a more friendly user interface (perhaps like my bios, there is the simple and the advanced) is a start
     
  5. MonsterZero

    MonsterZero TS Addict Posts: 229   +89

    Security isn't supposed to be easy, I can't imagine how you can dumb down the settings enough to make it user friendly. This is like asking a guy at JPL how they launch rockets into space, there is no non-technical answer.
     
  6. MoeJoe

    MoeJoe TS Maniac Posts: 401   +208

    Routers are pretty benign anymore. Certainly some are more complicated than others, but those that are feature rich and configurable are that way for the tech nerds anyway. They are that way for a reason.

    User friendly isn't really a problem anymore.
    This article is off base and 'triggered', and ignore obvious history & evolution of routers IMHO.
     
  7. Squid Surprise

    Squid Surprise TS Guru Posts: 867   +277

    Amazing to see all the bashing on this article. All he's basically saying is that our routers should be easier to use and have far more features - and all of the features he's suggested I don't see why anyone wouldn't want them!

    Many homes have dozens of devices installed - and in a home with many teenagers, it might be nice for a parent to be able to find out how many cell phones/tablets/laptops are connected and what they are "up to"...

    Also, it would be very useful in larger homes to know which areas aren't getting good wifi...

    What's with all the hate?
     
  8. wiyosaya

    wiyosaya TS Evangelist Posts: 1,045   +274

    Mainly because people do not see the need for some of the things suggested in the article, and I agree that the details of a router are for the technically inclined.

    Personally, I have a dedicated linux machine as my gateway and router. I have far more control over it than some store bought appliance. If I had kids and if I wanted to, I could easily set up to log the traffic to/from any ip address in my local network. I already collect statistics on outgoing / incoming traffic volume.

    IMO, before we need easier to use routers, we need IoT devices that actually care about how secure they are.
     
    BSim500 likes this.
  9. Burty117

    Burty117 TechSpot Chancellor Posts: 2,920   +687

    What a bizarre article. I'd say all modern routers and firewalls are easy to configure. Truth of the matter is the average user doesn't know what NAT even stands for, why we need it or have any idea on how the TCP/IP stack works. If you ask the average user what their external IP is you just get a look of confusion and anger.

    I can understand wanting to know what data flows in and out of your home network. There are already solutions to this. At my parents place I put in a Watchguard firewall and a dimension server that can report what sites have been visited and block dodgy content etc...

    Solutions to almost all the stuff in this article already exist. It's just VERY expensive since the average home user has no need for a bunch of Cisco Meraki wifi points to map out where devices are or a server to produce log reporting or a packet inspecting (proxy) firewall. If the guy in this article is after a device that does all that in a single box, it's going to be one hell of an expensive device...
     
    wiyosaya and MoeJoe like this.
  10. MoeJoe

    MoeJoe TS Maniac Posts: 401   +208

    A clear example of what is wrong in the world today.
    The mere fact that people interpret words of text on the internet as 'hate' is quite telling.
    People that throw 'hate' around so loosely is funny not funny.

    Can only speak for myself, but no 'hate' was intended.
     
  11. captaincranky

    captaincranky TechSpot Addict Posts: 11,703   +1,886

    Because the further your burglar alarm stays away from the internet, (IMO), the safer you are.

    Most of what I've seen in the way of internet security offerings, amount to time and data wasting nonsense, using a smart phone with a camera in the home, to check up on it. Not only aren't you in as good a position to do anything about a burglary, as your alarm company, but it just amounts to robbing your employer of work, with you checking your phone every 15 minutes. Which BTW, is plenty of time for a crew to come in and strip your home bare of its valuables, and be long gone by the next time you call.

    In fact, even if you're at home, as often as not, your alarm company is in a better position to do something about the break in. (Without any internet connection, whatsoever).

    Since when did you become the arbiter of what's "hate", and what is "difference of opinion"? When you saw Julio wrote the article?
     
    Last edited: Sep 7, 2016
    Burty117 and MoeJoe like this.
  12. MoeJoe

    MoeJoe TS Maniac Posts: 401   +208

    Bam !
     
  13. lazer

    lazer TS Enthusiast Posts: 58   +12

    Yes I quite agree with the author that WiFi router will soon connect to home security systems in a big way, but I might suggest that the two weakest points are:

    1. Wifi has a need for constant electricity. A back up power source is needed for when the home electricity is down. and...

    2. WiFi is totally dependent in most places on the phone line. What is needed is a 4G or 5G satellite type hook up so if the phone line has problems, the home security system is not compromised.

    I am certain that in the not too distant future we will see these problems solved.
     
  14. Johnyy Smith

    Johnyy Smith TS Rookie

    I read this article hoping to be inspired as I have a spiffy router, which does not get much use, other than serving PC's and sometimes smartphones. But this did not apply to ordinary users. It seems to be written for some techno house of the future or one that is full of very expensive gizmos, owned by a systems engineer

    A couple of paragraphs were made meaningless by over use of the buzz word 'leverage'. This kind of geek speak should be saved for meetings in organisations full of wage slaves prepared to listen to such meaningless pap. Or is leverage the filler word to replace 'like'?

    quote -
    I read this article hoping to be inspired as I have a spiffy router, which does not get much use, other than serving PC's and sometimes smartphones. But this did not apply to ordinary users. It seems to be written for some techno house of the future or one that is full of very expensive gizmos, owned by a systems engineer



    A couple of paragraphs were made meaningless by over use of the buzz word 'leverage'. This kind of geek speak should be saved for meetings in organisations full of wage slaves prepared to listen to such meaningless pap. Or is leverage the filler word to replace 'like'?

    And twice in one sentance is ridiculous -

    quote

    Imagine this: a device that could leverage either its own sensors or even data from your other devices to physically map out your home, then show you where the connected devices are and what they’re doing. The device could potentially do this by either having you take a few pictures, shoot some video, or leverage the kinds of 3D-depth sensors that are being leveraged for augmented and/or virtual reality-based products.

    /quote
     
    Last edited: Sep 7, 2016
  15. captaincranky

    captaincranky TechSpot Addict Posts: 11,703   +1,886

    I don't know which part of the "vacuum of cyberspace" you've been living in, but real life has certainly passed you by,

    @#1: For 20 years my home alarm system has had what's come to be known as a "backup battery". It eliminates any issues should the power go out

    @#2: When my contract with my alarm company ran out, I renewed it. That's when the alarm company came out and installed a "wireless system", which doesn't depend on any type of wired or optical system connected to the home. Hell, for all I know, it calls them by satellite.

    But, it's not connected to the internet. Which means, I don't have to pay an ISP to keep my burglar alarm going, just my alarm company, period.

    That also means, the system is, "air gapped", so it can't be hacked via the internet, just like military computers.

    As far as "mapping the sensors in my home", I told the alarm company where to put them in the first place. Why on earth would I need a computer to tell me where they are?
     
    Last edited: Sep 7, 2016
  16. Capaill

    Capaill TS Addict Posts: 292   +93

    There are 2 key things stopping this dream -- standardisation and security. I have no desire to play a game of finding one expensive supplier of all the parts. And even if I did, their security would need to be rock solid. Which it never can be as long as there is a connection to the internet.
    So, a nice idea but doomed to failure. Perhaps parts of it could be implemented. And perhaps the worldwide movement towards IoT will eventually get together and find a way to make it work. We can only hope.
     
    captaincranky likes this.
  17. wiyosaya

    wiyosaya TS Evangelist Posts: 1,045   +274

    Sophos offers free UTM software that will convert an unused PC with 2+ NICs to a device similar to the Watchguard appliances.
     
    Burty117 likes this.
  18. Trillionsin

    Trillionsin TS Evangelist Posts: 1,324   +135

    Last I knew, there's lots of alarm systems that use a backup battery with a way to communicate without a landline, so 3G/4G. Maybe this isnt common knowledge. (At least alarm systems that businesses use, I cant speak for commercial home security.) Also, usually the 3G/4G is a backup as well, and not used as its main method of relay.
     
  19. captaincranky

    captaincranky TechSpot Addict Posts: 11,703   +1,886

    The home systems are all going wireless too. Wireless, with all wireless sensors as well.

    Jeez, maybe the Lithium batteries in them will all explode one day...:eek: No wait, that's a different thread....:oops: Never mind.
     
    Last edited: Sep 7, 2016
    Trillionsin likes this.
  20. Burty117

    Burty117 TechSpot Chancellor Posts: 2,920   +687

    Yeah, I used to use it, There are loads of solutions, I was just using an example, The thing is, the average users just don't care enough to actually bother any solutions like this.

    Their are easier alternatives as well, buy a line with a static IP, Point your router to get it's DNS from a particular DNS company, this company can then monitor everything for said parents who are worried about what their kids look at on the web and problem solved. Just make sure DNS locked down to just the relevant company otherwise the kids could just use googles public DNS :p
     
    wiyosaya likes this.
  21. Thirsty

    Thirsty TS Rookie

    Your garden variety 'IOT Router' (to borrow a click bait heading from another esteemed publication) has minimal internal storage for logs and they are not in a understandable formst for general public consumptoon.

    Of far greater concern: Your 800 gimmicky IOT devices would go gaga if you (God forbid) decided (for prudent security reasons) to change the password on your SSID.

    Imagine all the wonderful plain text messages being sniffed as the different devices were updated.

    You DO have a secure and reliable way of doing this, don't you? For each and every connected device?

    Don't you?

    Until you solve this problem on an industry wide basis, you are just being a hobbyist playing with your prototypes and hoping some fool will give you loads of money as you hop on this latest buzzword fad.
     

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