Is the smart home ready for mass-market adoption?
On the surface, the smart home is doing well. The market is growing; and this past CES, smart home gadgets were everywhere, from kitchen appliances with voice assistants to vanity mirrors with built-in Bluetooth speakers to well-intentioned robot helpers.
But all this hides the fact that the smart home is still struggling. In my opinion, the avalanche of consumer smart devices will at best create smarter rooms, but the smart home market will remain stuck in this chasm of the technology adoption life cycle, battling to shed its novelty image and move beyond the early adopters stage and gain mass-market adoption.
Ideally, a well-designed smart home is simple to use for all occupants, truly interoperable, and easy to maintain. And underpinning it is usually solid home automation.
Wait, isn’t smart home and home automation the same thing? Well, no. Home automation is just one aspect of a smart home. Have a smartphone app that you use to turn on the living room lights as you’re coming up in the lift? That’s one part of a smart home in action. Have the same lights turn on automatically when you enter through the front door, but only if it’s after sunset? Now that’s home automation.
Alas, herein lies the biggest problem of the current smart home movement: most smart home gadgets are designed to “talk” to the user but not to one another, which inevitably makes automation difficult. The many communications protocols and smart home standards also create unnecessary confusion and know-how burden for consumers. This is why most friends I know never went beyond their one or two Philips Hue lights or Sonos wireless speakers. To them, smart home equates rocket science.
Here’s a personal story. When I first decided I wanted to smarten up my home, I started with the lights. It didn't take me long to realize that decking the whole house with Hue lights was untenable. For one, Philips didn't have many Hue designs at the time; and even if I wanted to rewire all my lighting points to accept E27 bulbs, I wouldn't be able to get past my house’s financial controller. Furthermore, what if I wanted to add remote awareness for my other dumb devices in the future, such as my kettles, air-conditioning units, water heaters, and door locks?
Long story short, I eventually retrofitted my place and went the Z-Wave route. There’s also a Raspberry Pi involved somewhere to get my devices (including those on Zigbee and Wi-Fi) recognized by Alexa and Siri. In a nutshell, what I’m driving at is this: consumers value simplicity, and building a smart home today is anything but.
While I don’t foresee any single major event that will trigger mass-market adoption overnight, I do think consumers are now more receptive of the smart home concept, due to all the push made by consumer tech and electronics companies in the last two years, such as Apple, Amazon, Google, Samsung, and Sonos. Basically companies with more visible consumer products like smartphones, speakers, mesh routers, TVs, and refrigerators rather than traditional home automation companies that sell relay switches and switchboards that go into the walls will be the ones to take the smart home mainstream. What also helps is that consumer tech companies tend to focus more on simplifying the installation experience using ubiquitous tech like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and enhancing the user experience with pretty mobile apps and witty voice assistants.
But to throw caution to the wind, understand that even if you’ve a picked a particular networking protocol or an ecosystem to base your smart home on today, unless you don’t buy any more new gadgets, perfect integration in a heterogeneous environment comprising of devices from different vendors is almost impossible. Companies usually only think about users using their own branded or certified devices; interoperability with devices from other vendors is seldom their concern.
To play safe, you can stick to only buying devices that are officially supported by the central controller; but seriously, there isn’t one hub or platform that supports everything. Even Z-Wave and Zigbee-based systems, which pitch interoperability between devices made by different manufacturers (as long as they’re part of the same alliance) as their main selling point, aren't immune to integration problems when you add new, theoretically-compatible devices to the mix. The security implication is huge, too: right now, there’s no established way for say, a Z-Wave smart hub from Brand A to firmware update a sensor made by Brand B.
So until this technological fragmentation problem that directly impacts interoperability, user experience, and security is resolved, the smart home will never truly take off in a big way. As it stands, the smart home is still quite stupid.
This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of HWM.
Ng Chong Seng / Former Deputy Editor
I write. I also fix things.