We need to dump the phrase “smart home” and adopt something new. That was a big takeaway from my panel focused on the smart home in 2020 held this week at CES. Fellow panalist Felicite Moorman, CEO of Stratis IoT, suggested we should return to using the term “automation” to talk about the act of connecting devices in the home and having those devices handle tasks automatically on our behalf.
Colin Angle, the CEO of iRobot, suggested the phrase “MESH home,” with MESH being an acronym for “managed, efficient, secure, [and] healthy.” He doesn’t believe consumers want to be able to turn on their lights using their voice, but rather they want a home that reacts and adapts appropriately to their needs. A MESH home, he argued, would ensure that the people inside are safe, are using their resources wisely, and are breathing clean air. And it would do all of these things automatically, with voice as only an occasional interface.
My co-panelists aren’t alone. Google, for one, has recently been beating the drum of “the helpful home.” But what’s in a name? Well, a lot of expectations. After all, for the last decade consumers have been sold the phrase “smart home” on one hand, only to be offered remote control, or voice control, of a connected device on the other. Only the savviest could create homes that were automated, and it took a lot of time and effort. That’s not really smart.
A truly smart home requires context, and absent ways for devices to interoperably share information and some kind of framework for trust and security, that context remains still a pipe dream. Thus the smart home is still a pipe dream.
We’re getting closer. At CES there was a lot of talk (and even more skepticism) around Connected Home over IP (CHIP), the proposed standards organization created by Google, Amazon, and Apple to allow our devices from different manufacturers to communicate. Moorman expressed cautious optimism about CHIP, noting that she would be crazy to ignore the effort given the companies behind it. Angle said he was willing to work with the standard but wasn’t going to spend a lot of time thinking about it until it was fully up and running.
(Right now the parties have only agreed to work together. An actual first run at the standard isn’t expected until much later this year.)
But even if devices can communicate easily to help provide the needed context in the home to make it smart, it’s not clear how much context consumers actually want to share. For example, my iRobot device has a really good understanding of where everything in my home is at floor level. Do I care if iRobot has that information? What if it shared that information with another company? In many cases, consumers have a default fear reaction to more of their data getting sent to tech firms.
It’s not an unfounded reaction; plenty of companies abuse the trust consumers place in them by building insecure products. Or by not thinking about how a consumer might view the use of a human contractor to listen to smart speaker requests.
Angle, however, noted that building trust with the consumer is hard, and that we don’t yet know what levels of privacy a consumer wants. When iRobot mentions privacy in its ads or marketing materials, he said, sales actually go down. “Consumers don’t want to have to think about it,” he said. It’s true. When you’re buying a vacuum that you can command via your voice, you don’t want to be reminded that it could be mapping your home, or that you don’t know where, exactly, that information will end up. (Angle clarified that in the case of iRobot’s Amazon integration, consumers’ mapping data is not shared with the retailer.)
Another panelist, Cezara Windrem, Innovation Catalyst and Head of VR, AARP Innovation Labs, said she thinks the privacy trade-off is simple: If something is useful enough, then consumers don’t mind sharing data. Thus, even if a consumer has to give up a lot of sensitive data, they tend to regard the tradeoff less skeptically, especially if a company has plans in place to protect security.
No matter what you call it — smart, automated, or MESH — the home we’re talking about won’t arrive until it’s designed in such a way that people can derive real value from it. And delivering that value will require device interoperability and consumer trust in businesses’ data privacy and security policies. Maybe we shouldn’t worry as much about the name.