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The smart home is flailing as a concept—because it sucks

The smart home was supposed to be the next big computing platform. Now it seems lost in a fog of frustration.

The smart home is flailing as a concept—because it sucks
[Source photo: Marvin Samuel Tolentino Pineda/iStock]
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A couple of weeks ago, the tech industry group Consumer Technology Association (CTA) released a predictably cheery report on the state of consumer technology. It forecasted record-breaking revenues of $487 billion this year, with laptops, wireless earbuds, personal fitness devices, and 5G phones singled out for especially strong growth.

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Yet tucked into that upbeat forecast was a spot of dreariness: Smart home devices, once hailed as tech’s next big computing platform, would experience flat revenues of $15 billion in 2021, with unit sales up 11%.

The CTA says its stagnant forecast is merely a function of competition, as an influx of device makers drive down the cost of hardware. But as someone who’s been living with various smart home gadgets for several years now, I have a different theory: They’re just not worth a big investment unless you have a limitless supply of time and patience.

An airing of grievances

When you press a button on your phone—say, to make a phone call or take a photo—you probably expect that button to work every time. But that’s not the way things work with smart home devices.

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Just this week, for instance, the two Alexa-connected blinds in my bedroom failed to roll down at their scheduled time, and this morning, only one of them opened back up again. I have no idea what went wrong, because Alexa doesn’t offer any feedback when things fail, so all I could do was try again until the routine triggered properly.

Those kinds of misfires are common in the smart home world. I’ve had Google Assistant refuse to set alarms or read upcoming calendar events for several days in a row, only to fix itself without explanation. My Ecobee thermostat occasionally gets stuck on a single temperature, requiring a reboot. I’ve had light bulbs inexplicably fail to connect to their hub device. And I’m pretty confident that every Echo speaker owner has experienced Alexa playing the wrong music at least once.

The problem, says Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi, is that smart home devices haven’t gotten much better at avoiding these problems even as the market edges toward mainstream users. Instead, a proliferation of new devices and use cases has multiplied the ways in which things to go wrong.

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“At the beginning, you obviously had early adopters who usually have a higher level of patience,” she says. “But now that the market is somewhat mature, you’re not going to stand for that. You’re not going to be happy if you can’t rely on it. If your alarm doesn’t go off, there are consequences.”

Too many choices

Making sense of what to buy in the first place also brings its own challenges. Chaos reigns at every step in the smart home purchase process, and you can easily end up with a pile of devices that don’t work together. The SmartThings lights in my bedroom don’t work with Apple’s Siri assistant, and my Tilt blinds only work with Alexa. To control my Liftmaster garage door opener by voice, I must first connect it through a third-party service called IFTTT. The Philips Wiz smart bulb outside my office don’t work with Apple’s HomeKit system (though Philips’s separate Hue lighting brand does).

Even the relatively simple act of playing music across multiple smart speakers involves a mess of proprietary protocols. The Sonos Beam soundbar responds to voice commands from Google Assistant or Alexa, but only supports multi-room audio with other Sonos or Apple AirPlay speakers. To connect my soundbar with Google Home or Echo devices in other rooms, I’d have to plug a Chromecast or Fire TV (or both) into my television first.

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A couple weeks ago, I also lost control of my SmartThings light bulbs entirely. That’s because Samsung decided to stop supporting a product it launched three years ago for turning Nvidia’s Shield TV streaming box into a SmartThings device hub. I’ve yet to set up the replacement hub that Samsung offered at a discount, because it requires pairing every bulb all over again. (Owners of Wink smart home hubs went through a similar ordeal last year, when that company switched to a mandatory subscription model.)

When I explain this temporary inconvenience to my wife, she rightfully rolls her eyes. While she’s been a good sport about my smart home endeavors, she’s also keenly aware of how annoying they can be. After all, she had to set up all the same apps and learn all the same voice commands as I did, and she had to train Google Assistant to recognize her voice to make certain features work.

That means she also gets veto power over any future purchases. The inherent wonkiness of our current setup has permanently dissuaded her from entire categories of devices—most notably, smart door locks—and we’ve mutually decided against installing security cameras of any kind. Device makers don’t seem to appreciate that in the home, they can’t just focus on a single person.

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Beyond the basics

As you might expect, the CTA’s outlook on smart homes is still rosy. Rick Kowalski, the company’s research director, says 2020 was a “pivotal year” for smart home devices with 5% revenue growth. And even with revenue flattening out this year, he expects bright spots from individual product categories. He points to robots as a big area of potential growth, with the industry moving beyond basic vacuums and into floor washers and lawn mowers.

“Over time, as people continue to improve their homes, they’ll see opportunities to upgrade to connected devices and build out their home network,” Kowalski says.

Google Assistant is still trying to replace features that Google’s Nest devices once offered on their own.

He’s probably right, in the sense that people will slowly amass patchworks of gadgets in the same way that I have over the past few years. But the original promise of the smart home wasn’t merely about automating a handful of random tasks. Companies such as Amazon, Apple, and Google were instead supposed to provide a kind of central intelligence for the home, tying together an array of devices in clever and delightful ways. The idea is that a smart alarm clock would know to open your blinds and turn on the lights in the morning, or that your sleep tracker would know to turn the thermostat down when you’re not resting comfortably.

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Today, those companies are still figuring out exactly how to do all that. Google Assistant is still trying to replace features that Google’s Nest devices once offered on their own, such as Home- and Away-based automation routines. Apple still has two separate interfaces for home automation—one through its Home app, and another through Shortcuts. Amazon still maintains three separate smart home systems through Alexa, Ring, and Blink. Only recently have all three tech giants agreed on a single wireless smart home protocol, which would reduce the number of bridges and hubs people have to install.

It’s all just so hopelessly confusing right now, and it’s probably not going to get better anytime soon.

“People continue to buy thermostats and locks and lights, but I don’t know that we’ve moved the industry forward from an experience perspective,” Milanesi says. “It’s not actually that smart.”