As someone who writes about technology for a living, I know it’s all too easy to find yourself living in a bubble where you become completely out of touch with how people use technology. Smart Home tech is a great example of this.
If you speak to anyone working in the tech press, we’re on the precipice of everyone living in a Jetsonian-style homes, with every facet of our habitats controlled by computers and code, like Ikea-furnished Borg Cubes. And, in their defense, it’s easy to see how they’d come to such a conclusion.
In just a few years, we’ve gone from having smart-homes being the preserve of the digerati, to Nest running advertisements for their thermostats on the London underground. For the first time in ages, smart homes have a real, mass-market promise. But there’s still a long way to go.
For smart homes to really take off, the following four things need to happen. And soon.
Create An Agreed-Upon Standard
There are a dizzying array of companies that produce smart home devices. There are well-known, household names like Philips, Nest and Archos, as well as obscure Chinese manufacturers that operate from industrial parks in Shenzhen.
Each of these devices speak their own languages that are only intelligible to devices from the same manufacturer. They operate on different frequencies, and communicate with different protocols. The consequence of this is vendor lock-in, and consumers being shepherded into buying from a limited selection of manufacturers, in order to ensure their devices are compatible with the rest of their smart home menagerie.
We’ve been here before. This is an all too common scenario in the tech-world. Just cast your mind back to the early 90s, when there were multiple serialization ports vying for dominance. These were later usurped by USB, which later became a standard in its own right, fighting off competition from Apple’s FireWire and Thunderbolt standards.
Smart home tech needs its own USB. It’s own, definitive, dominant standard. The problem is, there are multiple industry behemoths that are all separately working on their own open standards, with no sign of any one becoming mainstream.
Nest and Samsung are working on Thread. Microsoft, Bosch, Electrolux, LG and Qualcomm are working on AllJoyn. Dell, Intel and Samsung have established the Open Interconnect Consortium, who are trying to launch an open, interoperability protocol and a certification program for Internet of Things devices. ABB, Bosch, Cisco, and formerly LG are working on a common language for smart-home devices to communicate over.
And elsewhere, there’s ULE, which hopes to be a standard in its own right. ULE defines the technical, low-level details of how smart home devices communicate, without touching on interoperability.
ULE mandates that all smart home devices communicate on a single, secured, exclusive frequency, in order to mitigate against interference. It’s expected that this will result in improved energy efficiency and performance.
The need for a smart-home standard is clear. I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Lowes VP Kevin Meagher has openly stated the need for open standards in Smart Home and IOT products. But until one is agreed upon by all the major players, smart home technology will never penetrate the mainstream.
Respect People’s Privacy and Security
In 2013, whilst sitting on the corner of his bed in a Hong Kong hotel room, Edward Snowden dropped a bombshell.
As it turns out, the United States had been engaging in wholesale, global surveillance. This was done with the tacit complicity of many household names in tech. The likes of Facebook, Yahoo, and Google, whose mantra of “don’t be evil” now seems like a bad joke.
Almost immediately, this became front page news across the globe. Consumers, angry at the fact that their private information had ended up in an NSA data center, decided to vote with their feet, and with their wallets. Thousands closed their Facebook accounts, and privacy-oriented search engine DuckDuckGo saw their traffic soar by over 600%.
In the years that have passed, these titans of technology have managed to rehabilitate their image as the shock of the Snowden revelations has worn off. Despite that, people are still wary about who they entrust their data too. And there’s no data more intimate and more personal than the collected by smart home devices.
These are machines that know everything about who you are, and how you live. They know when you come home, and when you leave the house. They even know what temperature you like to keep your bedroom at.
This is really dangerous information when put in the wrong hands.
For smart homes to really take off, the companies behind the devices need to reassure the public. The best way to do that, I feel, would be with a legally binding Smart Home Bill of Rights. One that guarantees one’s right to privacy, and the security of any data held.
Until then, privacy conscious consumers are going to steer well away. And who could blame them?
Make It Easier For People To Control Their Devices
This one, I feel, is a no-brainer. For smart homes to take off, people need to be able to meaningfully control their devices, and the data they collect.
An important pre-requisite to this will be an open, accepted standard. This will allow third-party developers to produce products and applications that can interact with smart home devices and control how they work. Ideally, there would also be some form of API that allows developers to integrate smart-homes into their mobile, desktop and online applications.
Open protocols and open standards would then make it viable for someone to build a universal hub that could communicate with every smart home device on the market. Admittedly, there have been a few stabs at this already.
Lowes, who are heavily invested in the smart home market, have released Iris. This hardware and subscription-based hub can communicate with smart home devices communicating over WiFi, Z-Wave and ZigBee.
In 2014, French technology giant Archos released an Android-based tablet hub. This only worked with their own devices, but came bundled with a smorgasbord of cameras, weather sensors and movement trackers. More recently, we’ve seen Staples launch the Staples Connect Hub. This costs $79.99, can be controlled from an iOS or Android app, works with most of the major smart home devices.
These are all promising, but suffer from a non-universal device coverage, and relatively high costs. These, I feel, will be resolved when an accepted standard comes about.
On the subject of control and hubs, it’s also important that consumers be able to port their data, and delete it if desired. This, I feel, could be a happy result of the introduction of an accepted standard, and a Smart Home Bill of Rights.
Make It More Accessible To All
Finally, for smart homes to really take off, they need to be accessible for the 90% of consumers who don’t regard themselves as power users. The ones who don’t know what an IP address is, and could be deterred by a complicated setup process.
Smart Home devices need to get simpler.
The most effective way for this to happen would be if smart home devices become more design and usability oriented. If they come ready-installed with sensible default settings, and ship with clear, well-written, accessible documentation and instructions.
It would be even better if smart home device manufacturers became even more customer oriented, and offer a free helpline, alongside a paid installation service. In the UK, Nest make this easier by connecting users with Nest Pro installers.
In The Meantime…
For smart homes to really break into the mainstream, there’s a lot to be done. In effect, manufacturers need to fundamentally reimagine their industry and their relationship with their users. If that happens, we can expect a world where every home is automated, energy-efficient, and computerized. But I’m not holding my breath.
Have you got a smart home device? Are you waiting to see how the industry changes before investing? I want to hear about it. Drop me a comment below, and we’ll talk.