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Have We Reached Peak Lightbulb?

Are any of these startups even going to be around when your fancy smartphone-controlled bulb burns out?

Buying smart bulbs for the home is a little like choosing between HD-DVD or Blu-ray. Like regular old incandescents, or CFL or LED or halogen bulbs, smart bulbs–which can be controlled from your phone–fit into your regular old sockets. But unless you want to have a separate phone app for each room of your home, you’ll need to choose a system and stick with it, hoping that the system stays around so you can buy replacements or additions in future. You also have to hope that the app you use to switch your lights on and off is updated to work on any new phone you might buy.

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So have we reached “peak lightbulb”? After all, it seems that every week another Kickstarter smart-bulb pitch lands in my inbox.

It’s unlikely that any of today’s startups will be around in 20 years, which is the promised life of these LED bulbs. So, realistically, what happens after your purchase? After all, the environmental savings of auto-shutoff and low-power LED are quickly lost if you have to toss the bulbs in the trash prematurely.

“Even without connectivity, Ilumi works like a regular bulb,” says Bruno Solari, speaking for Ilumi, a company making yet another new smartphone-controlled lightbulb system. “In fact, when you set your preferences or schedules, those are stored in the bulb so you can still use them like a regular light bulb.”

Ilumi is among a wave of startups to launch a smart bulb product. Its latest bulbs have some interesting features, such as its Bluetooth “mesh networking.” Instead of connecting your phone directly to each lightbulb in the house, the bulbs instead connect to each other, forming their own network. Not only does this simplify things, as you only have to connect to one bulb to control them all, it also extends the range, because your commands leapfrog all the way down to the bulb in the basement, handily sidestepping the usual 30-foot limit for Bluetooth radios.

The Ilumi bulbs, which cost $60-$70 depending on brightness, switch themselves on and off as you get near and also have an absurd-sounding suggestive lighting feature which “automatically provides the right lighting for every room in a home, acting as a personal interior designer.”

While new technology brings enticing and even essential new features, it also brings complication. How often does your Bluetooth speaker go screwy on you? Now imagine the same thing, only it’s your lightbulb, and all you want to do is douse the light and fall asleep. No one really wants to be troubleshooting bulbs at bedtime. At the risk of sounding like an old man, at least you always know where you are with a regular lightbulb. Even dogs and cats can manage to switch on a light, if YouTube is to be believed. Some tech might be best left dumb.

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These two problems are intertwined. To differentiate themselves in a saturated market, bulb makers have to add clever new features. But this adds complexity, and it also causes early obsolescence. The Ilumi bulb seen here is version two. The original was launched on Kickstarter back in 2013, and yet we’re already being asked to upgrade. And it only takes on glance at the aluminum, glass, plastic and circuit boards that make up the bulbs to see that they have a much bigger environmental impact than a glass ball with a burned-out filament.

Our advice? LED bulbs are great, and you should just buy whatever excellent bulb Wirecutter tells you to buy. If you really want a smart bulb, then go with something from an established company that will be around in the future. And third, start of with one or two bulbs and test them for a good long time before committing to a system.

About the author

Previously found writing at Wired.com, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.

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