A Connected House ain’t No Smart Home

on February 22, 2017

Intelligent, smart: lights, doorbells, shades, doors, fans. Our house is connected or soon will be. Yet, when we talk about these AI-enabled abodes, we refer to them as connected or smart homes not houses. Given we are talking about connecting objects in our house, why not call it a connected house? A house is “a building for human habitation, especially one that is lived in by a family or a small group of people.” A home is “the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household.” It seems as if the industry thought the more touchy-feely side of what makes a home was key to the experience. It might well be it’s because “connected home” sounds better. Whether the industry thought this through or not, I strongly believe our connected home should be more about the cohesive experience than a bunch of connected gadgets under the same roof.

Single Apps Lowered the Barrier of Entry but Might Hinder Expansion

Connected home gadgets have been available for years, albeit not abundantly. Apps allowed for the next step of the connected home to develop and to finally resonate with consumers. Apps allowed for consumers to easily set up, manage, and monitor connected accessories. This increased their appeal and usefulness, making investing in them seem more worthwhile. It also meant that, as a consumer, you could also test the water versus plunging into the deep end. You did not have to commit to connecting every single accessory in the home nor commit to a single brand. You could pick as few as one bulb or one plug to have a feel for what it would be like to access that bulb, lamp, fan, lock, anytime and anywhere.

As prices came down and de facto standards arose, consumers started to add more items and the individual set up approach started to become a little tired. Different apps, different set ups, different login requirements, all made scaling your connected home experience a burden. As a user, I do not want to “talk” to my connected accessories individually and, more importantly, I want for the accessories to talk to each other.

Enabling vs. Owning the Experience

Amazon Echo and Alexa were the first to come to our rescue with Google Home a fast follower. The new digital assistants, in the form of a smart speaker, are helping to make some sense of the complexity the connected house is becoming for early adopters. What these products deliver, however, is far from a rich experience. In most cases, one must go through setting up the device through the manufacturer’s app and then add it to the Alexa or Google Home app. A little like an aggregator, our digital assistants control the final step of the interaction, making us forget which brand name our lights, doors, and fans are. When everything works, Alexa or Google are the ones delivering the moment of delight.

Our research informs us that early tech adopters often enjoy the pain of setting up and living with a new gadget but that pain is a turn-off for mainstream consumers. Mainstream consumers also don’t like to carry the “something is wrong” weight. They want someone to blame when things go awry and, right now for most consumers, it would be hard to figure out where the buck stops.

Owning the experience does not only mean offering a one-stop shop setup app. It is also about being responsible for guaranteeing privacy and security. This is no easy task, especially when several devices are connected to one another. It is no surprise Amazon and Google are not necessarily rushing to play that role.

Apple’s Home, It’s All in the Name

Apple seems quite keen on taking on the ownership of building our connected home. I recently visited a model home that was fully equipped with HomeKit enabled accessories: doorbell, shades, lights, fan, thermostat. Everything was set up and managed through Apple Home, from individual accessories to scenes where different accessories come together to deliver an experience. It has taken Apple some time to build a sizable list of vendors supporting HomeKit but it’s all there now. But Apple could do a better job at publicizing what is available on the market and what the experience delivers. I expect this to change, given how after CES, Apple is perceived as playing catch up with Amazon.

In my home, I set up a lamp with an iHome plug. The set up took less than five minutes and I could do it all from Apple Home. Apple’s lack of an individual device that sits in the home listening to you is not an issue as you can give access to Home to family members who can control accessories from their devices plus, of course, Apple TV. The experience is no different from Alexa or Google Home as Siri is always somewhere around the house.

What I find interesting in Apple’s approach is there is something for everybody. Scenes will appeal to more sophisticated users to set up different accessories to work together, while the ease of use will appeal to less technology savvy users who will enjoy a pain-free setup. The conversation around connected homes has recently also included a focus on security and privacy. The risk of these connected appliances and accessories being hacked is real. It means some consumers might be picky about who they entrust with their home. In a recent Creative Strategies survey we ran with 800 US consumers, Apple was rated the most trusted company for both privacy and security. That means, for many consumers, Home delivers that extra peace of mind they want.

No Winners and Losers yet, Just Contenders

Most of the connected accessories brands on the market are keeping their options open and support Alexa, Google Home, SmartThings and Apple Home. Apple has the advantage of being in many pockets across the world, not just in the US, which could make up for not being in someone’s home as a standalone device. Google is both in people’s pockets and in the home but has to fight for attention on phones as manufacturers are building their own assistant or partnering with Amazon. Finally, Amazon has captured many homes but needs to partner outside the home which might be a risk for delivering a strong experience. All of this clearly point to the fact consumers will mix and match and find what works for them.

Not every house is a home. Not every connected house will be a connected home. Contrary to common belief, this does not depend on the number of gadgets we will have connected but on the experience that is delivered, even on a single connected bulb. Luckily, most consumers have only taken a few steps on the road to a connected home so vendors have time to get it right by focusing on ease of use and the quality of the experience.