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What is up With the Smart Home?

By Ernest Worthman, AWT Executive Editor and IEEE Senior Member

Ern’s Perspective


For a couple of years now, the smart home segment has been surprising the crystal ball gazers. While there has been significant progress in platform metrics, i.e. devices, capabilities, interfaces and the like, in the end, the segment has been slow to gain traction. I may get some pushback on this but, I am convinced that the devices are still too complex for the average consumer, in more ways than just technologically.

There are still significant incompatibility issues among devices and platforms. Many are still proprietary and interoperability issues still exist across platforms and brands. Complexity in installation and interconnect are some other issues.

Not too long ago I penned a missive that addressed the more obvious reasons and what the segment should be doing. I do not claim to be a fortune teller, nor a mind reader, but in the end, I am also a consumer. Yes, I can muddle through complex deployment and configuration issues, but there are just some areas where I want the same, simple, plug and play configuration as do non-tech neophytes. I just want to plug it in and have it do all the configuring so the next thing I know it works with Alexa, Siri, all my  smartphones, tablets, computers, even my Harley (OK, so that may be asking a bit much).

My point is that just because I can, does not always mean I want to. I am not alone in that. I know plenty of socially awkward, uber-geeks who feel the same way. They may want to rewrite the algorithms for their favorite social media apps, but they do not always want to play with connecting a smart lamp, thermostat, or lock, for example.

I recently saw a report from 451 addressing this conundrum. Their take was that smart home adoptions are happening but it is a rather slow ramp up as opposed to a “wow” take up on new technology. I tend to agree with that assertion.

One chronic issue that is plaguing the unlicensed markets is security and privacy. It seems like, pretty regularly, we hear about some sort of privacy breach, particularly with unlicensed devices, social media platforms and AI platforms. Recall that, recently, Amazon changed its Alexa so it was easier for the user to delete data. However, that reinforces the point that such devices have been too complex and difficult to manage.

However, all that aside, the main reason consumers are not buying such devices is two-fold. First, many are just not interested in smart light switches, locks or thermostats. Security cameras and doorbell cameras fare a bit better, but the rest of the devices remain somewhat stagnant. Second, there are no compelling use cases. Many of these smart devices are being promoted as “ushering in a new era of greater comfort by giving consumers the ability to control every aspect of their homes, right from the palms of their hands.”

However, somehow that is not engaging the consumer. The single most important reason consumers are reticent is simply the lack of interest in a smart home. They just do not see them as being very useful. Between the security issues and lack of compelling use cases, 65 percent of those polled, fall into those two categories.

This places smart home vendors in a bit of a quandary. They now have the job of convincing the consumer of what smart devices can do to improve their quality of life. However, the question begs; what do consumers want? There are a slew of devices out there. I have seen smart home demos that have all kinds of benefits. However, this level of interconnect is not cheap. To make the most of this requires more than just smart speakers and locks. It requires smart appliances, smart fixtures andsmart devices. That is a compelling use case, but a very expensive one at this stage of the game.

Writing from a consumer perspective rather than a techno geek, I can see the consumer’s point. Remote control light switches and sockets, and some specialized devices have been around for decades. Some were actually quite sophisticated for their day (remember the old X10 systems?). The theory was sound but the implementation left a lot to be desired. Still, it had a lot of potential, yet never really caught on. There were others over the years, as well.

When I talk to people that represent the typical user that might be interested in smart homes (this spans several generations) the answer I get most often is, that the current situation is not that objectionable. They just do not feel the need to replace comfortable, reliable, and understandable devices with next generation ones, and deal with a learning curve (and the fact that when power is lost, so is the functionality, even with battery backup if the outage lasts too long).

In the end, the smart home market is growing and will continue to grow. The general consensus is that adoption will be steady and with a low linear slope – at least for the next few years. One key parameter that could accelerate this is, as the market matures and the replacement cycle of older appliances with new, smart, interconnected ones become the norm, adoption rates of all smart devices will accelerate. However, that may take another five to 10 years to gain some traction since many high-ticket items last up to 20 years, even longer.

Finally, the success of the smart home depends upon easy interconnect and control. If a device, such as Alexa, becomes a natural interface with smart devices, that might be just the ticket to get the industry mainstreamed.

Why the Smart Home is Not Getting Smarter Faster

By Ernest Worthman, AWT Executive Editor, IEEE Sr. Member

The smart home, among other things, is one of the many segments of the wireless industry I keep fairly close tabs on.

For years, I have been going to conferences, tradeshows and conventions that all have some sort of smart home presence. Yet as I look back, it seems that the smart home just has not moved nearly as fast as some other platforms, or as fast as I expected, quite frankly. So, I did a bit of due diligence to see what factors are at play here.

First of all, it is not the technology. Smart home technology is at the cutting edge just like many other platforms. Is it the cost? To some degree, yes. But it is not the primary factor. It was a lot more stifling when smart bulbs were $50+. Today, smart bulbs have dropped to around $15, which is still at the higher end of the scale. To really get it into the hands of the consumer, low-end devices (such as bulbs and wall sockets) need to be around half of the current price.

However, the main impediment to faster adoption is that the consumer sees the technology as too complex. Since the emergence of this market, the focus has been more on the technology than the consumer. While technology takes priority in other segments (phones, entertainment, computing devices), it doesn’t seem to be that important to the smart home consumer.

That makes sense to me. I am about as far out on the bleeding edge as possible. My home office has become nicknamed “command central” (two 8th generation core i7 desktops, five monitors, two laptops, one tablet and two phones – and we won’t even talk about my media setups). But I get the consumer’s perspective.

The one place where I do not want to manage technology is my home. I want my smart home to be straight-forward, simple to implement, modify and control. And that is not the case with the smart home, at present.

Scale that down to the average consumer who runs most of their life on a tablet or smartphone and generally leaves passwords at the factory setting. I do not mean to imply that they do not know, or cannot use these devices, especially gen-Y on, but they are not interested in how or why, just that it does what they want. If they purchase a smart thermostat, they just want to install it, and have it handshake with the smart home network and digital assistants (Alexa or Siri, or Google, or Cortana or BixBy), seamlessly.

As well, there are no real business models yet. Just rather basic systems available across all vendors. While the players all offer similar solutions, they are not interoperable. And they are really not smart, just connected. Smart devices need to offer more than just power and time or voice/input commands. For example, a coffee maker that, using facial recognition, can automatically make a beverage to the exact preference of whomever is using it at the time. The same with smart showers (know the desired temperature and pressure), security systems (automatic arm and disarm because they recognize the occupants), HVAC (adjust environmental conditions in a room per occupant’s desires and efficiently manage their comfort in real time), and other home systems.

There are also not a lot of value added services. That is where the money is. Once a smart home is all decked out in smart devices, the value proposition ends for the vendors unless they have ways to bring additional services.

All of this will take more than just digital assistants. While today’s digital assistants are a nice next-generation interface, they have a somewhat limited scope. Talking to a device to have it do things is just the next iteration of inputs. I do not consider that being smart, personally. Real intelligence comes when the devices know what to do without direct input and in real time.

This step will require artificial intelligence and machine learning (ML), which enables machine intelligence (MI). It is no different with smart homes as it is with smart cities – just a level of scale. In fact, a recent Gartner report predicts that 25 percent of households will use AI-powered digital assistants as the primary interface for connected home services by next year. It will be interesting to see if, or how AI changes the landscape.

So, going forward, the smart home industry needs to understand what the consumer wants – not just deploying technology because it exists. It must enable the consumer and they must be comfortable and have confidence in it so it, ultimately, enables convenience.

Plug and play is essential. So is interoperability. Once these, and other issues are resolved, then the industry can think about value propositions for add-on services and features that make a home smart, as well as adding convenience and value for the occupants.

Ernest Worthman
Executive Editor/Applied Wireless Technology
His 20-plus years of editorial experience includes being the Editorial Director of Wireless Design and Development and Fiber Optic Technology, the Editor of RF Design, the Technical Editor of Communications Magazine, Cellular Business, Global Communications and a Contributing Technical Editor to Mobile Radio Technology, Satellite Communications, as well as computer-related periodicals such as Windows NT. His technical writing practice client list includes RF Industries, GLOBALFOUNDRIES, Agilent Technologies, Advanced Linear Devices, Ceitec, SA, and others. Before becoming exclusive to publishing, he was a computer consultant and regularly taught courses and seminars in applications software, hardware technology, operating systems, and electronics. Ernest’s client list has included Lucent Technologies, Jones Intercable, Qwest, City and County of Denver, TCI, Sandia National Labs, Goldman Sachs, and other businesses.  His credentials include a BS, Electronic Engineering Technology; A.A.S, Electronic Digital Technology. He has held a Colorado Post-Secondary/Adult teaching credential, member of IBM’s Software Developers Assistance Program and Independent Vendor League, a Microsoft Solutions Provider Partner, and a life member of the IEEE. He has been certified as an IBM Certified OS2 consultant and trainer; WordPerfect Corporation Developer/Consultant and Lotus Development Corporation Developer/Consultant. He was also a first-class FCC technician in the early days of radio. Ernest Worthman may be contacted at: eworthman@aglmediagroup.com.