Let’s be frank—it’s nearing the end of 2019, and my house is as dumb as ever. To turn the lights on, I have to flip a switch. To see if my family is running low on food, I have to open the refrigerator door. And to quiet my concern over whether I remembered to lock the front door after leaving my home, I have to climb back up three flights of stairs.
With all the technological advancements that have taken place over the last decade, you’d think our homes would be a lot ‘smarter’ by now. Many brave predictions have been made about how our refrigerator will order food, our lights will turn on and off automatically, one hub will control all of our smart devices, and voice will become the predominant UX. All of this techno-optimism makes it seem like we should be living in much more high-tech dwellings by now. In reality, the last wave of technological advancement for most homes was way back in the 50’s and 60’s when electrical appliances became available en mass.
So, what’s holding the smart home sector back, and what are the opportunities for innovation to tap into the massive value they represent?
* At the end of this post you can find a few articles, links, and videos that further expand on the topics discussed.
Timing Is Everything
A big part of the answer to these questions has to do with timing. Every so often, a new technology comes of age that becomes stable enough to be used as an enabler of mass-consumed products. If we try to leverage a new technology too early, it doesn’t work well enough. Too many tweaks, too many updates, too many bugs. A Disneyland for early adopters and hell for my mom. But, if we wait too long, we miss the opportunity to create a differentiating product. To lead the pack. To be the first in a blue ocean.
Take autonomous cars, for example. Based on past predictions, we should all be driven around in driverless taxis by now. However, the challenge has proven to be more complex than initially anticipated. The promise is still high, but the technology is not ripe enough for mass adoption. On the flip side, look at Lane Departure technology. A few years ago, it was a real breakthrough. Now, it has become a commodity (with a varying level of performance). Trying to launch an autonomous car into the market today will fail (too early) just as much as a business based on lane departure technology (too late).
In this respect, there is a bit of magic to understanding where we are in the trajectory of a given technology’s evolution. To determine if smart home technology is worth investing in—not to mention what, exactly, that investment should be—we must set aside the incredible potential and allure of the growing market to ask just how far it has come in its evolutionary process. So, that leaves us with the question: Are the technologies that will enable smart homes ready for mass adoption products?
While this is by no means a scientific experiment, try counting how many smart devices you currently have in your home. I recently did this myself, and found that I had five devices (excluding mobile). For the typical household in North America, that number is expected to average around nine by 2022. But, even then, will our homes feel smart? Will these devices have a noticeable impact on the way we live? And why is it only nine and not 90?
The Old Definition Of A Smart Home Needs Updating
This gap in product adoption clues us in to the fact that the old definition of the smart home— as an environment that senses and reacts to our every move, in which everything will be infused with intelligence and automation and will be easily connected to everything else—has not lived up to expectations. Tech has simply not evolved quickly enough and the right use cases have yet to be identified.
For companies to make wiser, more targeted investments in smart home technology, we must rethink our definition of the smart home. To get to this new definition, let’s take a look at the current landscape of smart home technology, and the value it has to offer us as its users.
Connected Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Valuable
At the outset of IoT, it seemed that value would be created just by connecting things. The washing machine, refrigerator, lights, curtains, and dog food bowl would all become connected. However, it seems we forgot the small but crucial necessity of reaching product/market fit. Sure, leveraging technology to build a product can create a cool gadget. But in order to appeal to the masses, end-users must not only like it, they have to need it. In other words, the product must solve a real customer friction.
So, what is the value in making everything around the house connected? That is an open question, and the available answers, manifested in connected lights, curtains, and dog food bowls have proven one thing to be true: These types of applications do not hold enough value for consumers to justify mass adoption. This gets at the crux of why smart homes are not yet an everyday commodity—because the correct use cases have not yet been found.
This may have to do with who is coming up with the concepts of what gadgetry our homes need in the first place. I’ll put it this way: The world would have had an automated clothes folding machine long before the first connected smart bulb was introduced if my mom had been sitting at the design table. I’m suspecting that, in many cases, the people who are making these decisions spend most of their days away from their homes and the long list of challenges they pose.
Connecting Isn’t Easy, Or Safe
Most smart home products live in silos related to the brands that built them. I’m sure it will come as no surprise that getting my iPhone to screen mirror on my Samsung TV without having an Apple device in the middle doesn’t work. Or, that the smart boiler thermostat I bought six months ago refuses to connect to anything but Wi-Fi. It seems like the only way to ensure things connect properly is to submit yourself to one product ecosystem and hope the manufacturer updates legacy products as technology advances.
And, of course, there is (or in most cases isn’t) security. Would your IT department approve of you using your laptop without protection? Chances are, the smart camera you just bought doesn’t adhere to the same compliance levels. There is a lively discussion currently happening around where security should reside; at the device or cloud level. At the moment, for the majority of connected consumer products, it is in neither.
Is Remote Control The Best We Can Do?
Many smart home products are essentially glorified remote controls with some intelligence. Turn the boiler on, remotely. See who is at the door, remotely. Turn the lights off, remotely. These use cases all answer very slim frictions. Considering the hassle involved in purchasing a product, installing, connecting it, and keeping it updated and running, it’s easy to see why many potential users are not yet convinced.
Forget About Smart Homes, But Don’t Lose Hope Yet
Now that we’ve called out some of the main issues in the current smart home technology market, we can begin to redefine what a smart home is—and where technology can play a part in increasing the quality of our lives.
To start, we need to think of houses not just as physical structures, but as representations of the activities that take place within them. The everyday, unexciting, repetitive chores we perform over and over again. You bought a house? Congratulations! You can now look forward to spending countless hours cleaning it, repairing it, replenishing the pantry, mowing the grass, and so on. As a good friend of mine recently said, “Until my house can clean itself, it’s still pretty dumb.” Considering the fact that the average Brit spends two years cleaning their house, what problem does a connected light bulb really solve?
The real value of IoT and AI is in their ability to take processes which are not smart or intelligent and make them so. Just connecting is not enough. Performing operations that free up time is what creates value. In a Ted Talk from 2010, statistician Hans Rosling shared the story of the time his family got their first washing machine. His grandmother, who’d spent hundreds of hours of her life washing clothes for seven children, looked at the washing machine in utter amazement. Imagine all the things she would now have time to do. Read a book, rest, speak with her neighbor…this is value.
Smart Living, Not Smart Homes
What all this points to is that companies need to stop thinking about smart homes and start thinking about processes within homes. Which everyday activities can benefit from intelligent automation? Which could add free time to people’s lives? These are the high-value products that will make our homes less dumb and our lives better.
The next revolution in how we live at home will happen when manual processes become intelligent and automated. For innovators, entrepreneurs, and established companies alike, the challenge is to identify these processes, and, when you are convinced the technology is mature enough to intelligently automate them, it’s time to consider entering the smart home space. Sorry—the smart living space.
Further Reading On Smart Home Technology:
- The good the bad and the ugly of Lane Departure Warning, Lane Keeping Alert, Road Departure Assist, and Lane Centering Assist. While more new vehicles have these capabilities, the level of performance varies:
- Cisco’s IoT growth predictions for the data geek, and a great video interview about IoT security and resilience
- Smart Home predictions from 2016. We believed we were much closer to the finish line, but then…reality.
- Ikea is entering the smart home market, but are these products anything more than smart remote controllers?
- This video trended nicely a while ago. What do you need to do to reset your GE smart light bulb? Enjoy the show—it’s not meant to be funny, but it is.
- This family still has to make breakfast and coffee on their own, but their refrigerator is “smart.” Is this really the best of what a smart home will be?
- Should IoT security be at The Edge or The Cloud? Probably at both.
- How much time do you spend tending to your home? More than you think.
- Hans Rosling’s TED Talk about the wonders of a washing machine and what is the greatest invention of all times.