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The unbearable fussiness of the smart home

As we head into another gifting season and more and more connected devices make their way onto gift guides, I want to offer a cautionary note. The smart home is like a cat — mostly self-sufficient and nice to have, but also possessing a mind of its own that can lead to frustration and confusion for its owner. Indeed, when you gift or get a connected device, ownership turns into active participation with the device and various other ecosystems.

What do I mean? Three weeks ago, three of my devices stopped working — all for different reasons — and required different steps to fix them. This week, one device suddenly start working again, another connected after some initial struggles, and a third became so intrusive I had to move it to another room.

Google says WeMo is unavailable, and yet it still turns on my WeMo outlets. Image courtesy of S. Higginbotham. 

This isn’t a device or brand problem. It’s an industry problem. Smart home products look like hardware but are really software, subject to updates and changes that will break integrations, contain bugs, and add new, unwanted features. For most consumers, there’s a gap between what they expect from hardware and what they get with smart home devices that leads to dissatisfaction, returns, and poor user experiences.

For the manufacturers, there’s a lack of tools and/or research to ensure that software updates don’t cause problems or that new features don’t frustrate users. I’ll offer up a few examples of fussy devices to illustrate these issues. Let me be your cautionary tale before purchasing a smart bulb or speaker.

I’ll start with a feature set shift that has led me to banish my Echo to the storage room. Amazon is one of the biggest players in this sector, introducing tens of smart home products a year and holding a leadership position with its Alexa digital assistant. But in the last month, Alexa has become so chatty — offering me a stream of recommendations, notifications, and discovery tips — that I finally put my Echo in the storage room.

I have complained about Alexa getting too proactive before, and had turned off as many of the options that led it to make suggestions in my Alexa app (here’s how to do that), but she just kept talking to me. In the last three weeks, Google has made one unsolicited suggestion while Alexa has made at least five. Two of these were emergency alerts for slow-onset flooding in my area, which I had to go in and turn off.

I didn’t even know Alexa tracked minor National Weather Service bulletins and alerted customers, much less when that feature was added. And it’s frustrating to have a device behave differently without foreknowledge, especially if the new function interrupts me with non-essential information while I’m working or reading.

Another disappointment has been my Nanoleaf Elements, which are actually one of my favorite products. I had long had them on a schedule where they would turn on at 7:30 in the morning and off at 9:30 at night. About a month ago, I noticed they would turn off randomly during the day, so I checked the schedule in the app to make sure it was still correct. It was.

Then about three weeks ago, the lights started turning on in the middle of the night, waking us up. It was like living with a ghost. We finally started unplugging them at night to avoid the random wake-up calls. At that point, I tried changing the schedule, then I hard reset the device. My husband was frustrated with me. I was frustrated with Nanoleaf. The devices stayed unplugged.

Then I got a software update and applied it. The random schedule deviations stopped, but a day later I saw I had the option to update the lights to work as a Thread Border router. Excited, I applied the update. And then my lights stopped working. Nanoleaf suggested another hard reset and said an upcoming software update should fix the issue. It has been a week, however, and they are still broken.

Software updates break devices all the time. But in this case, there’s a lack of communication and an element of surprise associated with a product that costs a lot of money (my Nanoleaf setup cost almost $1,000) as well as an element of random misbehavior that the consumer can’t fix and for which they can’t find answers. In this case, forums, maybe a Discord channel, and the ability to roll back bad software updates would probably help consumers feel a bit more informed and in control of their homes.

My final example of fussy devices addresses the challenges of making a device work within an ecosystem. I have two WeMo outlets powering lights over my plants that are tied into my Google Home ecosystem. They’re scheduled to turn on at 8 a.m. and off at 8 p.m. in the Google Home routines setting as well as grouped to turn on or off when I tell Google to “Turn the plants on” or “Turn the plants off.” Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes it will tell me it doesn’t work, via notification or voice, when in fact it’s working just fine.

Just for kicks, the last time it stopped working, I decided not to fix it. In all honesty, I was just sick of messing with it, so I procrastinated and manually clicked the outlets on and off at approximately the right times. This approach enraged my husband, who kept asking Google to turn on the lights and kept getting error messages and no light.

But this morning it started working again. Sort of. The schedule is now turning on my lights on time and my requests to Google turn the lights on or off work. But…Google is also still sending me notifications to both the display and my phone informing me that there is a problem. Why? I don’t know. Why did it stop working for two weeks and then suddenly start up again with no input from me? I don’t know.

Usually when my WeMo outlets misbehave I factory reset them, delete them from the Google Home, and then set everything up again. It takes about 15-20 minutes and isn’t hard, but it’s also not something I love doing. But this time I just waited and it fixed itself. Or maybe it didn’t?

I used to spend about two hours a week tweaking elements of my smart home, in part because I was constantly changing out devices and running multiple networks that were talking to different hubs. I have streamlined my home’s devices and yet I still spend anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes a week dealing with devices that suddenly change their behavior or refuse to act like they are supposed to. It’s like living with annoying, high-maintenance ghosts. Or a cat.

I’m not calling out Amazon, Nanoleaf, WeMo, or Google because their devices are bad; there are plenty of other brands that have provided similar trouble. But I do think it’s worth warning people before they find themselves in too deep. The industry has come a long way, but in the end, owning a smart home still involves a lot of time spent doing the equivalent of herding cats.

Stacey Higginbotham

View Comments

  • WeMo stuff has been among the least reliable for me. They randomly lose Wifi connections and don't respond even in areas of very strong signal.

    My Ring stuff is slightly more reliable, but live view is about a 50/50 proposition. That's just awful and totally unacceptable.

    I've never had a single issue with Hue stuff and very few issues with my Honeywell smart thermostats.

  • This was a great column! I particularly liked:

    “Smart home products look like hardware but are really software, subject to updates and changes that will break integrations, contain bugs, and add new, unwanted features. For most consumers, there’s a gap between what they expect from hardware and what they get with smart home devices that leads to dissatisfaction, returns, and poor user experiences.”

    As an engineer, I would have to say that there’s also a very important hardware piece, but inarguably after the first few weeks almost all the annoyances come from software issues until the hardware piece reaches end of life. (For example, my Eve Aqua sprinkler controls, which all began leaking a few months out of warranty. That one was a hardware issue.) But in between the “What’s a neutral wire?” Beginning phase and the end of life breakdown, the issues are nearly all software, and, as you point out, often caused by unexpected and all too often undocumented software changes.

    Even Alexa, normally a household favorite, has done this on occasion.

    For a couple of years, one of the last things I do at night is say, “Alexa, turn off your display” to make the screen go dark. Earlier this month, something changed, and now I have to say, “Alexa, turn off your screen.” No warning, no documentation of the change or the new phrase, which we only found by trial and error. It’s an easy enough change, but it’s definitely annoying to be surprised by something which worked literally hundreds of times before.

  • Absolutely on target. My Alexa devices used to work with multi room music synchronization, but they haven’t worked correctly, or at all, in several weeks. I’ve spent time with tech support on the phone - at least they’re reachable! - but they’re clueless. I’ve given up on synchronized music. And the unsolicited “advice” is infuriating. Fortunately (so far!) the light switches still work. But I only have Alexa speakers, an August lock which I hardly use, and Ring cameras and doorbell. I’m keeping it simple, as such things go.

    • Same, Alexa and Spotify broke about a month ago and after doing all the "fixes" for over an hour, it's still broken. The one killer app, and the really only reason I like Alexa is dead. How about that drop in feature, oops we forget to tell you it takes over a minute to connect?

      My lights turn on sometime in the morning but only downstairs. And my lifx lights despite the again BS "fixes" still play a scheduled dimming at 1 AM if they are on. Mind you the dimming is more like a roller coaster where they dim and then go back to full light for a second then dim again.

      Look it's simple, the bar is set high for reliability, if you can't make your crap reliable just don't. Seems like someone should make a reliability and interoperability review/website.

  • Just wait until Matter, when you have to hunt down if it is Google or Apple or Amazon or tuya or smartthings or whoever else can issue commands to your devices that is the problem.

    This is why ZWave is not going away. No cloud servers to cause chaos, no unannounced "updates", no undocumented services. Simple devices obedient to one controller.

    • ZWave - "and no way to easily move devices to another hub". Unlinking/linking is a mess. Not exactly the future I'd hope for.

      • Cringe to say, how I love Wink's ability to copy/send z-wave information. I was able to take my entire zwave network from my old Intermatic Master Controller and copy it to Wink Hub.

    • It depends on which hub you use. SmartThings Is a certified Z wave controller, but with a very significant cloud component that can break zwave device functionality with unannounced and undocumented changes.

      They are in the middle of a transition to a new platform which will run more things on the hub itself, called SmartThings Edge, but it still requires unique code (called Edge Drivers) and those can still get updated and pushed out without advance notice.

      The same is true for some other Z wave hubs from other brands, although obviously not all. But just the protocol itself isn’t enough to insulate you: it depends on the platform architecture as well.

    • Or got with Tasmota. No hub. Everyone has wifi. Done. Also Lutron has a rock solid system with caseta

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Stacey Higginbotham

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