Baby Steps toward a Smart Connected Home

Tom Mainelli / February 17th, 2017

I recently took the first steps toward turning my “dumb” house into something a little bit smarter by buying some of the most expensive light bulbs and light switches on the planet. My reasons were twofold: One, I wanted something more robust than the old-school timers I’ve always used for turning lights on and off while we’re traveling. Two, I wanted a more automated way to follow behind my two kids, who’ve never met a light they didn’t leave on.

Philips Hue

There is a growing list of connected bulb vendors out there but Philips has been in the market for a long time and their products have generally strong reviews. The company has clearly learned from hitting the market early, as my experience setting up their Hue bulbs proved exceedingly simple. I bought a bridge and two light bulb bundle for $70 and a bunch of individual bulbs. A single white LED bulb costs $15 (and is rated for 15,000 hours); a third-generation, any-color-you-can imagine LED bulb costs $50 (!). After connecting the bridge to my router and loading the iOS app on my phone, it took just a few minutes to connect all of my various bulbs to the bridge. 

I was very impressed with my Hue experience. The app lets you set up individual lights, and group those lights into rooms. You can also add accessories, such as physical dimmer switches and motion sensors. Creating routines, such as having some lights come on when you arrive home and others turn off when you leave, was a bit more complicated but ultimately, pretty achievable. It’s worth noting the programmable color light Hue is very cool (Philips claims it is capable of 16 million colors), but it is overkill for most people. Before you make such an investment, you should test the waters with a basic white bulb. 

Belkin Wemo

In addition to setting up a handful of connected light bulbs, I also installed a Belkin Wemo light switch as well as two Wemo smart plugs. The switch ($50) lets me control a set of four lights without buying four connected bulbs. The smart plugs ($35) let me control two standalone lamps with standard LED bulbs. The switch is a more involved installation as it necessitates swapping out an existing light switch and requires a neutral home wire. Happily, this installation also went smoothly. The plugs are dead simple: You just plug them into the wall and plug in the existing lamp. Of course, to make the Wemo products work, I had to download yet another iOS app and navigate yet another interface. Instead of routines, Wemo offers rules, which are also fairly straightforward to set up. 

In the span of about an hour, I had my various light bulbs, plugs, and switches up and running and connected to their requisite apps. The whole process was so smooth and painless I found myself wishing that it resulted in something slightly more useful than just being able to turn on and off lights. That said, while it may be pretty basic, it’s also pretty useful.

Almost Ready for Prime Time

I’ve been thinking about diving into the smart home pool for some time, but I didn’t actually make the leap until another product made me give it more serious consideration: Amazon’s Echo. In the last year, we’ve added an Echo and a Dot to the house and the Alexa technology has integrated into my family’s life in a major way, from setting timers to playing music and podcasts to checking weather and traffic. Once that evolution happened, it was a short step to add more connected devices. All told, it took about 30 seconds to set up Amazon’s Alexa to control both Hue and Wemo. The fact is, if I had to find and use my smartphone to interact with these connected devices every time I needed to turn on or turn off a light, I would not have made the purchase. Another thing is pretty clear: I’m probably not done. With this success under my belt, I find myself looking more closely at other connected options such as door locks, security cameras, and a thermostat. 

One of the reasons the smart, connected home has taken so long to find traction among “regular” people is there have long been too many competing standards muddying the water. Philips, Belkin, and Amazon have made these competing standards largely disappear for this end user and that’s a big step in the right direction. As more people take the plunge, economies of scale kick in, and prices should continue to come down. In the end, Alexa may turn out to be the missing piece that finally brings the smart home puzzle together for more people. I look forward to watching this market evolve over the next few years. 

Tom Mainelli

Tom Mainelli has covered the technology industry since 1995. He manages IDC's Devices and Displays group, which covers a broad range of hardware categories including PCs, tablets, smartphones, thin clients, displays, and wearables. He works closely with tech companies, industry contacts, and other analysts to provide in-depth insight and analysis on the always-evolving market of endpoint devices and their related services. In addition to overseeing the collection of historical shipment data and the forecasting of shipment trends in cooperation with IDC's Tracker organization, he also heads up numerous primary research initiatives at IDC. Chief among them is the fielding and analysis of IDC's influential, multi-country Consumer and Commercial PC, Tablet, and Smartphone Buyer Surveys. Mainelli is also driving new research at IDC around the technologies of augmented and virtual reality.
  • Sara Carter

    “a more automated way to follow behind my two kids, who’ve never met a light they didn’t leave on.” No doubt. Now if our smart homes could hang up towels.

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