A year ago this month, I prepared a presentation on the “State of the Smart Home,” which focused on how far voice interfaces had taken us and where they fell short. This week, I gave a quick talk to folks preparing smart home products for IKEA in which I tried to encapsulate how my thinking had changed since then.
The original presentation started off with a look at some of the challenges the market has faced since it gained new life in 2012. Among them were a lack of standards, expensive products, a dearth of clear use cases, and uncertainty about the security of devices. Today those challenges still exist, and I’ve come to realize that I was too optimistic.
I thought that we would have solved interoperability challenges by now, and made the connected home easier for mainstream consumers to adopt. I also thought the industry would have given those consumers compelling reasons to choose connected gadgets. I was wrong.
The Amazon Echo kept my faith alive for a while. I saw it as a device that could bridge the warring standards and get people excited about the smart home. I thought they’d buy the Amazon Echo and get sucked into controlling their lights or their television with their voice. From there, they might invest in some locks or a connected thermostat.
Instead I feel like we’ve hit a wall. Voice control can’t offer us the true smarts we’re hoping for in a connected home, and the prospect of buying devices, installing them, and creating voice commands that offer real usability is too far a leap for the average homeowner. Heck, even I sometimes struggle to get my devices to work with Google Home or the Amazon Echo, and doing so is literally my job.
So 2018 is the year I am officially changing my tune. For most people, the DIY smart home is not going to be something they easily and enthusiastically adopt, like, say, smartphones. Instead, services providers such as Comcast, ADT, Amazon’s Experts, landlords or others will have to play a role in bringing consumers around to the notion of the connected home.
And I’m not going to call it a smart home, because basically what these vendors are going to offer is the convenient home. One where you can now start “movie time” with a voice command and your TV will turn on while your lights dim. It will be a cool party trick for those who have the interest (and who can afford it), but it won’t be smart.
We’re going to have to continue waiting for a home that truly reacts in an intuitive way to our needs and expectations. Before we get there, we’ll need standards around presence detection, a way to recognize people in the home, and stored information about their preferences. And in a smart home, those preferences will be based on a computer analysis of habits, not someone sitting down for an hour to program a specific set of actions.
Basically, we’ve traded the high-end customer world of professional installers who do quarterly programming updates for a slightly less expensive world of custom installers who will let customers adjust their programs on a smartphone, but will charge us for their expertise in installing, operating, and programming our automated homes.
There will be room for single-purpose devices that are dead simple and solve basic use cases, such as a video doorbell, or a connected light bulb or outlet that someone can control with their voice. Companies that are investing in products for the mainstream consumer (such as IKEA) will likely find an audience who wants to try out connected devices, but it’s unlikely that consumers will get beyond a handful of them. It’s simply not worth the effort to get things working the way they ought to.
In short, the state of the smart home in 2018 is pretty disappointing.