Blackjack or Bust: Most Wi-Fi Onboarding Approaches Are a Gamble

Published by Barbara Nelson April 18, 2017

Choosing a Wi-Fi onboarding method for your connected product often feels like a game of blackjack.  You aim for the optimal combination of cards, but you don’t know what challenges lay in the dealer’s cards or what’s left in the deck.

Choosing Wi-Fi onboarding methods is similar - you don’t know every customer’s environment, aptitude for following directions, understanding of the technology or threshold for product failure. You also have to weigh the potential cost (additional cost per device, supplementary hardware, etc.) to deliver a reliable solution.  One thing that you can be sure of is that the success of your product highly depends on this choice.

In this blog, I’ll discuss the onboarding frontrunners: Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), Homekit Wireless Accessory Configuration (WAC), Soft Access Point and ZipKey.

Bluetooth Low Energy

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) can be used to create a local wireless link between a smartphone and a product to exchange the Wi-Fi credentials.

To use BLE, the product must have a BLE chipset, associated hardware, and antenna, which adds to the bill-of-material cost for the device.  Most companies would not choose to add BLE just for onboarding.

The good news is that most smartphones have BLE capability built in, so they can take advantage of BLE to onboard products to Wi-Fi.  For both iOS and Android, the BLE connection can be controlled directly through the app with no user intervention. However, many desktop computers do not have BLE technology, so this approach cannot be done with a browser. The consumer must also be trusted to enter their password manually with this method.

Homekit Wireless Accessory Configuration (WAC)

Apple’s Homekit supports a feature called Wireless Accessory Configuration (WAC), which takes the Wi-Fi network credentials from the phone and shares them directly with the product the user is trying to connect.  This is a reliable method, as the user doesn’t have to enter the credentials manually.

However, WAC is only available for products that have been through Apple’s MFI program, include the Apple MFI chip in the product itself, and have BLE.  In addition to the substantial hardware costs of BLE, adding the MFI chip also adds bill-of-materials cost to the product.  The product must also undergo extensive costs for testing, certification, and approval from Apple. It also has limited applicability (works on iOS only.)

Soft Access Point

Product manufacturers use Soft AP (aka software enabled access point or virtual router) to let their users configure their Wi-Fi network names and passwords into headless products. The product uses its Wi-Fi radio to create a temporary access point to get the network name and password for the user’s private network from the product’s app. This is the most common mechanism to connect products to Wi-Fi. Unfortunately, this method has a high failure rate: tests show that 20% of people using SoftAP fail to get their product connected to their home Wi-Fi network.

SoftAP can be done with any modern Wi-Fi chip, requires no additional hardware and works with all Wi-Fi routers. It can work with iOS, but the user has to leave the app, go to settings, go to Wi-Fi, and then select the SoftAP Wi-Fi network, and then come back to the app, which is a confusing process even to the most diligent consumer.

It’s worse for Android. The app can control the Wi-Fi subsystem and can get the phone on the product’s SoftAP network, but the fragmentation of hardware and software in the Android ecosystem makes the user experience unpredictable. A good customer experience is difficult to guarantee with the SoftAP approach with Android.

Now, let’s talk about browser experience. SoftAP cannot be done reliably on a computer browser because the instructions for different operating systems are different and the machines may be connected over ethernet rather than Wi-Fi.

ZipKey

ZipKey is supported by leading internet service providers like Comcast and simplifies the process of onboarding of Wi-Fi devices.  ZipKey hotspots, which are ISP-controlled guest networks that are isolated from the user’s private network, allow ZipKey products to connect to the cloud automatically. This makes Wi-Fi onboarding a cloud-facilitated process rather than a local process. This improves the reliability and eliminates the need for the user to manually enter the Wi-Fi password.

ZipKey is compatible with standard Wi-Fi chips, which means no hardware change. It also works with iOS, Android, and browsers.

ZipKey provides a great customer experience and integrates automatically with ISP network management apps.  In addition, ZipKey provides benefits in the ongoing lifecycle of the product: reprovisioning, moving between networks, automatic update of Wi-Fi credentials if they change.

39% of negative reviews of connected products are related to initial setup and connectivity. Your odds of losing to a bad customer experience are high with most of the Wi-Fi onboarding approaches, so consider your options wisely.

 

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