If I were to ask if you were in total control of your smarthome, you’d probably say yes. It doesn’t matter if you use Apple HomeKit, Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant or a smart home hub; your answer wouldn’t change. “Yes, I am the master of my smart home. Why is he asking such an obvious question?”
But it actually isn’t that obvious, and you may have less control over your home than you think. Hear me out on this because I’ve been pondering this question myself lately from a few different fronts.
Earlier this month, Google made a slight mistake with an update to its cloud services behind Nest Aware, the subscription service that provides more cloud storage for video footage and additional security services. With a single update, Google enabled the security feature for non-subscribers that uses Google Home speakers to listen for breaking glass.
You might think that’s a good thing. “I’m getting this for free!” Yup, you are, but there’s a catch: For this Nest Guard feature, your smart speakers are always listening for the sound of broken glass. Do you really want that? If so, then you’d probably already be a Nest Aware subscriber, knowing full well (hopefully, at least), that your Google speakers aren’t just listening for the “OK Google” hotword but for specific sounds in your house too.
Google quickly rolled back the software, as it should have. But this situation is just one example of how cloud services tied to your smart home devices can be changed. And you may not even be aware of such changes.
Then there’s the Wink hub situation that’s played out over the last few months. People, like me, purchased a Wink hub because it supported the devices we have or want to have in our smart home: Specific brands of light bulbs, door locks, cameras, etc…. With Wink, I had the ability to create automations and scenes with these supported devices. And it generally worked well, until it didn’t a few times.
I moved on from my Wink hub trying both a Samsung SmartThings setup and a DIY effort called Home Assistant, and ending up using Samsung’s solution for now. But other Wink users have stuck with the product, even after Wink announced that a subscription service would be required to use its hub going forward.
Think about that: In my case, I paid for a hardware device back in 2015 that was advertised with certain capabilities and no subscription costs. In 2017, I upgraded to a newer version of the hub with the same understanding. Now in 2020, Wink hub owners must pay $5 a month and not just for extra or future features. They need to pay that just to use the hub as they’ve been using it. That cost is out of their control, it’s either pay up or move to a different platform.
And now that Samsung is finalizing the move of its SmartThings software platform from an older app to a newer one, the company has said some devices may lose support. To be fair, most if not all of those weren’t officially supported in the first place. However, Samsung touted the benefits of its SmartThings software being easy to work with so that you could create your own integrations with non-supported devices.
In fact, there are many of these custom “device handlers” people have installed to integrate and control devices in this case. But with a technology upgrade in motion behind the scenes, Samsung says a good number of these custom integrations will break.
I could go on with other examples of either cloud updates and services that either get pushed to devices or smart home products that undergo an unexpected business model change during the product life cycle, but you get the idea.
Think about this from a different perspective, one of a non-connected device like a lawnmower.
What if in the middle of the night, the manufacturer of your lawnmower opened your garage and removed the cutting deck adjustment so you couldn’t set the height of the mower blades? You bought a lawnmower with this feature so you could control the cutting deck. Obviously this example couldn’t happen but if it could, you wouldn’t be happy.
In fairness, most firmware or other software upgrades for smart home devices aren’t automatically installed.
The apps you use for these devices typically alert you to when a software update is available and you can choose to install it or not. At least for a little while. And you could read the release notes for the update, assuming they’re made available, if you wanted to. You probably should, in fact, but I suspect most consumers just hit the update button and move on, not really understanding what they’ve gained or lost.
So really, are you in control of your smart home, or are you not? My thinking is that unlike 10 years ago when I got into this space with mostly DIY projects where I had complete control, we’re losing more and more of that control today.
Some of the blame falls on device makers that had to adjust their business model, while some of it, more probably, is due to cloud services that our smart homes depend on. Sometimes, these services aren’t available due to an outage and sometimes features are added or removed to these services without input from us.
It’s akin to Google making a user interface change to Gmail, which has happened in the past, and you simply have to accept it. I’m not sure I want to when it comes to my smart home.