The smart home is dead. I’m not sure exactly when the time of death should have been called, but it happened at some point between Google trying to rebrand the smart home as “the helpful home” and the publication of this article, which expresses dismay that at five years of age, Amazon’s Alexa offers little more than a new way of interacting with things, without deep functionality or truly new use cases.
This week in New York, at an IoT Consortium event, I listened to executives of dozens of companies associated with the smart home talk around its death but never address the fact directly. Instead, they talked about a lack of compelling use cases, how to move beyond a device-specific mindset, and the ways they are trying to handle consumer demand for interoperability in the smart home without actually providing such interoperability.
For example, Google’s Mark Spates, who works in the smart display and speaker division, said onstage, “I don’t think we’ve done a good job explaining our value proposition to consumers. We have to come up with new stories that isn’t just ‘Go buy another Mini.’”
The subtext of his comment — and really of the entire panel, which was about voice and smart speakers — was that consumers still largely use their Alexa’s and Google Home devices for playing music and perhaps communication. The things consumers are able to do in a home filled with smart speakers haven’t changed, just the ease with which they can do them.
And while that might be a function of marketing, I think it’s more a function of how hard it can be to trust and use new technology. For example, Spates suggested showing new parents how they could use a smart display as a baby monitor, thus reducing the amount of gear they’d have to buy.
But with Google’s cloud still going down every so often, most parents who initially had their Google Display or Nest Cam set up as a baby monitor have since swapped them out for fear that a cloud outage will leave them unable to see their child when it might matter most. Greater redundancy and the addition of more local information sharing between devices could help in case of a cloud outage, but that level of local redundancy is not here yet.
And in many ways, that is the story of the smart home. Consumers had a vision of either a Rosie the Robot from “The Jetsons” or perhaps the millennial Pat from the movie “Smart House,” but today’s smart home doesn’t even come close (which is good, since Pat went a bit off the rails). Device makers didn’t meet that vision because they were working on individual gadgets or, in certain cases, a business model that could help monetize some kind of whole home operating system.
So I get why Google has backed off the smart home moniker and instead begun labeling the connected home as “helpful.” It needs to dial back expectations to something it can deliver. That’s likely to consist of an assistant pulling in device data so it can remind you to lock your front door when you go to bed, or lowering the heat when you leave your home so as to save on electricity. Even things like Amazon’s Guard, which listens for glass breaking to determine if a burglar has broken in, is only of minimal interest to consumers.
Because while these are nice functions, they are not glitzy functions. And they are not going to persuade people concerned about privacy, longevity, added complexity, security, or costs to shell out for connected devices. Another good example of this ambivalence to the smart home could be seen on a panel about smart TVs, connected displays and voice. The panel featured executives from Warner Media and Fox representing the content business. Neither of them were able to offer a compelling reason for being at a show all about the IoT other than wanting to make it easy for people to access content around the house, in their car, and on their phone.
I’ve felt this lack of creativity for a while. Everyone who has been watching this space has. Maybe it’s because the first decade of the smart home has been such a messy free-for-all and we need some space to clean things up, lower expectations, and focus on making devices and integrations usable. Either way, I walked away from the IoT Consortium event glad to have re-connected with so many of the folks I’ve met with over the last few years, but without a sense that there was anything new or exciting on the horizon.