Smart Home Situation Likely To Get Worse Before It Gets Better

One of the many big themes that came out of this year’s CES show was the idea of the smart (aka “connected”) home. Of course, it’s not really a new concept. People have been talking about smart homes for several years, and the success of products like the Nest thermostat have started to provide concrete evidence of real-world progress in the category.

At this year’s show, there was a huge focus on smart homes, with an entire section of the show floor dedicated to the segment, as well as many other companies participating in things like the Pepcom press event. Companies displaying their wares ranged from behemoths like Lowe’s, who is bringing its own proprietary set of solutions to the market, to smaller firms like Wink, who is bravely battling the mountain of incompatible radio, platform, and protocol standards in order to get smart home devices to talk to each other.

Smart homes were also a key part of the larger IOT (Internet of Things) theme that was prominent throughout CES and at events like Samsung’s rather over-the-top keynote on the eve of the show. At their keynote, Samsung attempted to paint a rather glorious picture of how everything, and everyone, was going to be connected thanks to IOT, but they were painfully light on details of how exactly they were going to do it.

Unfortunately, this is exactly the problem with IOT overall and the smart home in particular. Because so many people view it as one of the next big opportunities, lots of big players are making lots of big bets to establish a foothold in the smart home platform wars. Not surprisingly, though, many are looking to do so in a proprietary way. Even companies like Samsung, who made a big deal about pressing for open standards, is really only open to a point. For example, they provide access to a very limited set of features on their smart appliances to outsiders, and only provide complete control if you’re using a Samsung device.

Similarly, Nest and parent Google have been reluctant to share their means of communication between devices, forcing some vendors to reverse engineer (i.e., “hack”) their way in. On top of that, Apple hasn’t even released all the official details of HomeKit and, in typical Apple fashion, will likely keep devices that run HomeKit as part of a walled garden.

Unlike other big themes at CES, smart homes have been around in some form for quite some time and actually have “legacy” connections. In fact, a company like Insteon—who announced a deal with Microsoft but is also working with Apple on HomeKit—traces its roots back to the early days of X10 and other simple DIY protocols. Today, the company has over 200 different SKUs—from smart outlets and lighting products, to hubs and much more, all leveraging a proprietary radio technology that’s different from ZigBee, ZWave, Bluetooth, WiFi and other proprietary options, such as those used by lighting company Lutron and door lock vendor Schlage.

Through a number of in-depth conversations with high-level executives at many of these companies during CES, it became apparent that the challenges facing the smart home market from just a connectivity perspective are enormous. The inconspicuous looking Wink hub device, for example, apparently includes six different radios in order to be able to communicate with a wide range of potential devices. On top of that, vendors need to support multiple protocols (some of which are still being defined) as well as multiple operating systems on the devices running home control apps.

If you multiply all the possibilities, you end up with a staggering array of combinations just to be able to send intelligible data back and forth. Throw in the need to organize it into an intuitive, consumer-friendly way, and you get an inkling of the challenge.

While some people may choose to sidestep the complexity by staying in one closed ecosystem, I think that could prove to be much more challenging in a market as diverse as home automation. In addition, when people buy home improvement-style products, they often expect devices to last for decades, not just years, and it’s not clear any smart home vendor has really tackled that challenge.

I am looking forward to truly integrated smart homes some day, but I’m not holding my breath.

Published by

Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

20 thoughts on “Smart Home Situation Likely To Get Worse Before It Gets Better”

  1. The secret to smart home success is simple, painless installation. Plug it in, turn it on, then press (touch?) one button to incorporate into the main system and activate. One company is head and shoulders above everyone else at this kind of thing but lots of people will accuse you of fanboyism if you name that company.

    1. I certainly agree with you conceptually and yes, I know who you’re referring to. If, indeed, Apple gets things right with HomeKit that will be great, but my concern for any of these companies is we don’t think about buying into home appliances and home automation the same way that we do about device ecosystems. There’s a lot more variety in lighting companies, door lock companies, thermostat companies, appliance companies, garage door companies, sensor companies, etc., etc. than there is in tech and ensuring that all the choices I as a homeowner want to make are in the same ecosystem is going to be a helluva lot harder than picking the same phone and tablet. That’s what I’m concerned about….

      1. I hope Homekit is a success. What I’m concerned about, as you’ve eluted to, is the requirement of buying an iPhone to turn off my lights. There’s no good consumer reason that it can’t work on all smartphones. But I doubt that will come to pass.

      2. Once Apple jumps head first into the fray by releasing a fully configured extension of the iOS/OSX infrastructure, perhaps embodied in an Apple physical hub, I expect most of the major manufacturers of smart home components (except perhaps Samsung) will make their products Apple compatible. They’d be foolish not to. No homeowner would want to invest in a smart home system that’s here today gone tomorrow –that is Apple’s real ace in the hole.

        So I think the worry that the jumble of smart home ecosystems will result into costumer confusion as to what device is compatible with what ecosystem is overblown. Apple can easily impose order on the market, if it chooses to do so.

  2. It would be best for the industry if the manufacturers got together and agreed on one communications standard, as it would allow the IOT market to develop much faster.

    But that would require more intelligence – and especially more emotional maturity – than most CEOs are willing to bring to their job.

  3. If I look near my TV, I can see a wifi router, set top box, DVD player, wifi speaker set and Apple TV, each with its own remote control and user interface. It all works together, sort of, but boy it is a mess (did I mention cables as well). If anything, the mess has gotten worse over the past ten years.

    The prospect of creating a similar blended system (with its own basket of remotes) to run a connected home is not very appealing. Without some degree of standardisation of protocols and capabilities, the connected home will be very slow to get off the ground. Given the cost and length of the life cycle of appliances, ACs and heaters; this better be a well thought out system because consumers would be stuck with it for a long time.

  4. Proposition: If you want to “own the home,” you need a hub IN the home. That Jeff Bezos is a smart guy. His Echo concept is great: Home is where the hub is.

    But it’s Apple’s to do: Call it SiriUs, a hand-free, voice-run, seeing, hearing gizmo that sits on a side table, with these features: * Proximity awareness * Signals and verbalizes messages, etc. * Wolframs at will. * Monitors movements and sounds and sends alerts to your phone, relative, or the police. * Commands the Nest and many more gizmos: washers, garage doors, locks, music, lights, smoke and gas alarms, TV, cars * Acquires your HealthKit vitals from watch or wristband. * Contains a more than decent Sonos level speaker.

    SiriUs doesn’t need an onboard screen or much storage; a normal Apple price will still encourage Apple’s soon 1,000,000,000 credit card carrying adult users to buy several units per home; the hub resides in the software technologies. How about a unit in every room with “speakered hardware”? I have five speakered rooms presently. And there are just two of us at home.

    Will Apple do it? I think it will: SiriUs is still a computer and Apple is still the company that it was thirty years ago, making “computers for the rest of us.” Apple this year has introduced the component technologies: HomeKit, HealthKit, Continuity. And Siri’s an old acquaintance. In fact, it’s time Siri grew up and starting paying its way.


    1. It won’t be called SiriUs though, there’s already a strong satellite radio service with that name. Obviously this kind of thing has to be distributed in the software and devices. I’ve been calling this the Apple Network of Things. Echo doesn’t work because you need a whole unit in every room, but the Apple Network of Things will be distributed in many different ways I think, it should be very modular, and a much more elegant solution.

      1. Yep, the Siri tech that monitors and responds can be located in different devices: speakers, thermostats, TVs. I chose speakers ‘cus it’s most likely what Apple would offer. Why? Apple has terrific experience with sound tech. Thermostats? Not so much. And Siri is sound based. And then there is Beats. And Sonos, when Apple buys it.

        Yep, the aggregated info in SiriUs, as a networked version of Siri, can be accessed by pad or phone as well. So Siri can tell you what the room temp is in the kitchen at home when you are traveling. Still, SiriUs devices need to reside in rooms to offer the monitoring and handfree services noted. Home is where the hub is.

        1. Update: The Verge reports that HomeKit uses the Apple TV device to empower Siri: “Each new Wi-Fi device also shares one common trait: an Apple TV is required if you want to control them with Siri while away from home.” If so, why not a SiriUs speaker?

  5. Won’t it be another case of a killer app expending outwards ?

    A design-by-committee approach trying to cover all bases and include all players will probably never get anywhere, for both psychological, technical and political reasons. A killer app could bypass that morass and get something actually done. I’m just not seeing quite what I need more than a timer or remote for yet.

  6. Guess I have to play the curmudgeon (again). Mr. O’Donnell, your article is a fair assessment of the present/future format wars.

    I’m sitting here in the neutral zone wanting nothing to do with the idea of smartphones & internet connections to my home or anything else that isn’t an actual computer. I see this future as a giant disaster–one that everyone should see coming–yet, everybody is hoping it will succeed.

    Am I the only person who hasn’t been initiated into this doomsday cult? Doubt it.

    My personal hope is that the exact opposite of runaway success occurs. I’m hoping that companies will recognize the inherent insecurity of the ‘Internet of Things’ and decide to offer better locks, cars, TVs, heating systems, etc that CANNOT be connected to the web under any circumstances.

    Those companies will get my money. I don’t need no stinkin’ technology to turn on the lights when I enter the kitchen, fer chrissakes. I’m reminded of the spaceship passengers in the movie “WALL-E.” Don’t wanna be like that.

    1. While I share some your concerns, there’s a part of me that feels much of these developments are inevitable, so it’s a question of making sure the best potential outcomes make it. I think there absolutely will be a market for people who intentionally want disconnected devices–the question is, how big will it be?

    2. Agreed.

      However, for the foreseeable future, I am keeping my intelligent home security system with both voice and facial recognition. I’ll even share my password; it’s “down boy”. But with all that intelligence, it won’t do you any good.

  7. Although connected smart homes are in interesting concept, I sense that the US tech world is overlooking the improvements that are happening with individual home appliances. At least in Japan, our refrigerators, air conditioners and other stuff are getting quite smart individually, without being connected to the Internet or smartphones. Not to mention our toilets with showers to clean your butt. I’ll give a few examples (links will mostly be in Japanese).

    This is a refrigerator that knows when you are having breakfast, when you are out to work, when you each dinner, and when you are asleep (not very hard is it). It uses that information to change its power modes to save electricity. This fridge also monitors how much food you have in it (with optical sensors) so it can adjust how much power you need to keep the interior cool.

    This air conditioner has an infrared eye that detects where humans are situated. A room’s temperature will be different depending on location and height, so this air conditioner makes sure that the place where the humans are will be the most comfortable. It also knows the temperature of the floor so it can handle situations where your feet get too cold. It knows your body temperature so it can adjust depending on whether you’re feeling hot after some exercise or if you’ve been stationary and cold. It knows where humans tend to be (where the chairs and sofas are) so it can prioritize these locations. All without connecting to your smartphone. In fact, an infrared sensor will probably be better than a smartphone will every be for these tasks. Even better than a Nest thermometer.

    Finally, the crown jewel of Japanese home tech; the toilet. It has a sensor to detect when a person is approaching and then warms the seat in 6 seconds. It sprays hypochlorous acid into the toilet after use to keep it clean. It has a built in air cleaner to remove odor.

    What I’m trying to say is that there is so much innovation to be had in home appliances, and while Internet/smartphone connectivity will be important for some things, there are many others for which that’s a bad fit. Focusing on connected smart homes may be the wrong direction. It might be more worthwhile for the appliances themselves to be a bit smarter.

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