The Smart Home Decade Dilemma

Like many of the coolest new technologies, sometimes the idea of a new product or concept is much better than the actual thing. I’m finding out first hand that such is the case with many smart home and smart appliance products.

Thanks to the recent demise of our oven, a non-functioning ice maker in the fridge, and a burnt-out lamp on our cooktop, my wife and I recently decided it was to time to take the plunge and invest in a new set of kitchen appliances. Like many American couples, we started our search at the local big box store, investigated a specialty retailer or two, did a bunch of research online, and finally settled on a nice matching set of new GE appliances.

While the end result isn’t very interesting, going through the process of making the decision and realizing what some of the real world issues and questions that arise during that process are, was interesting. Oh, and not particularly positive for the near term future of smart homes.

First, of course, there was the question of color and style. Kitchen appliances, in particular, are something you see and interact with every day and, frankly, one of the key factors in our decision was actually the color and finish (slate grey) of the appliances. Once that was determined, we started looking at the choices within that range. Now admittedly, not everyone uses color as a primary factor, but it really hit me during this process that color is more important than it would ever be for standalone tech products.

The color also impacted the range of functionality (and degree of smarts) that were going to be available to us. For example, GE has begun producing a line of smart appliances, including a smart oven in the same basic model range as the oven we had selected. Unfortunately, it turns out the smart oven is only available in black or stainless steel—not slate grey. Again, some people may have chosen to get the smart functionality but, given the importance of the aesthetic design—and the even more important WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor)—the smart oven fell off the range of options.

Timing and functionality are also issues. The new GE connected refrigerator won’t be available until later this spring but we needed to replace our fridge now. Plus, frankly, all the smart fridge seems to offer is a warning the water filter needs to be replaced and an optional alarm when someone leaves the door open. Nice to have, sure, but really essential? Hardly. Same thing with the new smart dishwasher. Getting an alert the dishes are done isn’t my idea of something I need to have.

In the case of the smart oven, the ability to remotely start preheating your oven, get a timer notice when something has finished cooking, or change the temperature or turn off the oven from the comfort of your sofa, did actually sound modestly interesting. But then the paranoid side of me kicked in and I realized that, though highly unlikely, a device sitting on my home WiFi network could theoretically get hacked (despite both mine and GE’s best efforts.) Now, if there was one appliance in my home I really didn’t want to be taken over and remotely controlled by someone other than my family, it would be the oven because, in theory, it could actually end up burning your house down. So, my previous disappointment with not getting at least one smart appliance in the overhaul actually morphed into a modest sense of relief.[pullquote] GE’s new smart appliances all have apps you can run on iPhones or Android phones, but who’s to say that even in ten years (let alone 15 or 20) we’ll be carrying a device that can still run those apps?”[/pullquote]

Another thing that really hit me during this process is timing. The appliances we’re replacing probably had an average age of 20 years and I’m counting on getting roughly another 20 years from the new ones. That’s literally a 10x longer lifespan than we typically think about for most tech products. Conversations I’ve had with many companies working in the smart home space acknowledge this decades-long home product lifetime dilemma, but don’t really know how to address questions related to it. GE’s new smart appliances all have apps you can run on iPhones or Android phones, but who’s to say that even in ten years (let alone 15 or 20) we’ll be carrying a device that can still run those apps?

It reminds me of the in-wall radio and intercom system our house was built with nearly 40 years ago. At the time, I’m sure it was considered fairly cutting edge, but they likely fell out of use within five years of their installation and we now see them as almost an historical oddity. Many of today’s smart home products seem destined to suffer that same fate. In fact, I’m concerned those fears will keep the reality of the smart home market at a significantly lower level than what the concept of a smart home might otherwise suggest.

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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.

17 thoughts on “The Smart Home Decade Dilemma”

  1. I sometimes wonder whether any of the smart appliance designers actually do any cooking themselves.
    Things that they don’t address that I could use a bit of help with in the kitchen are:
    1) timings — how long will it take for things to finish (i.e. dishwasher done in 12 mins, oven reaches set temperature in 7 mins, etc.)
    2) reminders — subtle ping if I don’t close the fridge properly, beep if I leave the hob on without anything on it
    3) unintuitive interfaces — the user interface of most appliances seem to have been designed by the VCR-people; switching the oven to daylight savings time is not obvious, understanding the mishmash of icon/symbols not easy, a $2 egg timer is more convenient than any of the build-in timers
    4) wet/dirty hands — I would be helped with buttons I can press with the back of my hand or elbow (tablet or phone based controls, no thank you).
    I think there is tremendous room for improvements in the design of kitchen appliances, but most of these things involve proper application of fairly lowbrow technology and a proper job-to-be-done analysis.
    Finally, if I really wanted to automate the family dinners then I would of course get the apps from my local take out places and not bother with fancy appliances to begin with. [/end of rant]

    1. For the record, several of the GE smart appliances do have timers and notifications, but as you point out, what people really want is just the basics. I think many smart home vendors are trying to get a bit too clever.

  2. I think one of the parameters is that things should be either so smart as to be autonomous, or be dumb. Not in-between. Case in point: ovens. I need them to either have a single “cook that” button, or let me set a timer and temperature. Half-measures are just a waste of time, for example my oven’s presets are different from my recipes, their clock is off because it’s complicated to set, it resets at every power event, and I’ve got tens of clocks already, etc etc…

    1. A simple, cheap WIFI chip would solve the clock problem altogether. The rest of your complaints seem like examples of bad design. Which is an interesting point, because if and when appliances do gain complex additional capabilities, the quality of the interaction design becomes critically important, and very few companies are good at that.

      Ford cars have been docked by Consumer Reports’ reliability survey for years now because of rampant complaints about their infotainment system (which I only recently learned was made by Microsoft, to my un-surprised amusement). This one poor system made the whole car significantly less appealing to own for many people. When these systems are designed, they have to be designed well, or else your point becomes correct and the entire device – car, appliance – becomes less usable as a consequence.

      If they are designed well, though, I have no doubt that they can be entirely beneficial and additive to any product’s usefulness.

      1. A simpler solution would be to remove the clock completely. Timers might be useful (if well-designed) for some appliances, but I do not need a clock in every appliance. In fact, there is no reason for, say, a microwave oven to know what time it is because I don’t want it to run in my absence anyway (same for other appliances that could set the house on fire).

        The point is, there is a lot of poor, random and thoughtless design that will never sell well either.

  3. Dumb is good.
    I cook a lot.
    I don’t need “smart” appliances.
    I do not want to be contemplating an appliance replacement in a few years because some smart aspect of it has died.

  4. You’ll clearly need GPS tracking as well in case you “leave your refrigerator running”, your oven becomes “too hot to handle” or your Dishwasher “gets clean away”… :-S

    The “big promise” with Smart Fridges is a next level thing where it reports on your stock of items, orders more when you are about to run out, manages expiration dates on items etc. All of that needs the rest of the IoT to get moving so that individual packages have unique codes, RFID tags etc. to give this info to the fridge (with as little user involvement as necessary). It could then suggest recipes for what you have in stock that needs using up etc. I definitely don’t want to have to scan items at the checkout and again at the fridge… tho if they are auto delivered, I suppose you still only scan them once. Then you are into smart cupboards for dry/tinned goods etc. There is a start on this in those oppressive minibars that charge you the minute you remove something tho those things are pure evil!

    Now I’ve said it, I’m pretty sure i don’t want it plus it seems likely that Skynet will probably be led by someones Fridge AI.

    1. Yeah, last thing I need is my fridge ratting me out to my insurance company by tracking how much bacon I eat.

  5. All ingredients are different. The celery you bought last week is different from the one you bought today. Cooking with set times and set temperatures, or set sequence of temperatures, is not the way experienced cooks cook. Sometimes you need to punch up the heat temporarily to sear a thicker outer layer of fat, sometimes you simmer a couple of minutes more because the veggies have more moisture than normal. Smart kitchen appliances cannot smell if the aroma from the garlic is still a little too pungent or is just about to burn. Smart kitchen appliances are the last thing serious cooks need.

    What I need though is a cooktop that shuts itself off if I or the kids drive off in the morning with a flame running. A water valve that automatically shuts off if a pipe bursts while no one’s home or if the toilet reservoir stopper doesn’t seat properly and the water just runs all day. We don’t need a smart home to do the things that are easier and better done when we do it ourselves, we need it to do the things that need to be done but we can’t do ourselves (usually because we aren’t around to do them).

  6. The author raises some interesting and valid points (importance of aesthetics, long-term technology survival and compatibility). But it is a very limited and one-sided look at the “smart home” – he only considers a single appliance, and a kitchen one at that (I personally find that current “smart” kitchen appliances are almost all ridiculous – see the temperature of your frying pan on your iPhone app, woo hoo!). There is a lot of interest and promise in other areas of the home such as safety and security (smart locks, IP cameras), lighting, heating/cooling control. So I would really not write off the smart home.

  7. A lot of “smart home” technologies seem like novelties…similar to how the clap light was in the 90’s. It just doesn’t do a good enough job of solving a minimal problem.

  8. What smart appliances really need is a standard interface where a controller can be plugged in. Then you could have separate controllers for each appliance with the functions you want, or you could plug each appliance into a central home control system. This wouldn’t make them future-proof, but it would make them a lot closer, since you could upgrade the controllers (and functions) over time without replacing the whole appliance. The interfaces would no doubt change over time (anybody still use a serial port on their laptop?), but there’s no doubt that you’d be able to buy converters to allow new controllers to work with old interfaces (just like current USB-to-serial adapters). With a standard interface, the important features of an appliance would be what functions of the device the smart interface can control, rather than what specific functions (timer, temperature, etc.) an appliance supports.
    Of course appliance makers don’t want it this way, because then you could buy their appliance and someone else’s controller; but eventually they’ll either do this or end up giving up on most of the smart appliance market anyway. And since most people would probably buy the default controller the appliance maker sells rather than finding a new controller (except for geeks like me), the appliance makers would still be doing better than having no smart appliances at all.
    I’m also concerned about security, so I’d want the connection to be wired rather than wireless; I’d want any wireless capability to be in the controller (which could be upgraded or replaced easily to improve security). But keep in mind that even with upgradable wireless security, when you have any wireless control you’re probably going to eventually want to consider using some kind of wireless shielding in the exterior walls of your home (they have paint that’s intended to shield WiFi signals, but I don’t know how well it actually works).
    Let’s hope appliance makers eventually hire people from the technology industry that have already figured out the value of having standard interfaces (even for devices that only have a 2-3 year life). Until then, smart appliances will still be a little dumb, and I’m going to hold off buying one since it’s not worth the price for features that are guaranteed to be obsolete long before the appliance has outlived its useful lifetime.

  9. Bob, now that Tesla has introduced the home battery system, it is perhaps a thought to think about the connected home through the lens of someone wanting to reduce monthly utility bills (or looking to replace a backup generator with a solar + battery system).

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