So it’s 2016 and we all live in Smart Homes – perfectly energy efficient residences that have learned our behavioural patterns and cater for our every need – or at least we’re supposed to be by now aren’t we?
Much more likely is that you, like the vast majority of us in the “smart world”, live in normal dumb homes with a slowly increasing number of smart devices, which may or may not work together or at all. So has the technology not developed quickly or cheaply enough... or perhaps the market is just not that interested in being all that smart when they get home.
“The intelligent refrigerator is here. The new Screenfridge will help you with grocery shopping and dinner ideas, keep track of what you have in your fridge, and function as a message centre for the whole family”, reads a press release for the launch of the Screenfridge, by Electrolux, in March 1999.
“Samsung releases an entirely new category of refrigeration. The Family Hub Refrigerator is a sophisticated multi-tasker that reconnects families, organises groceries and home tasks, and provides entertainment”, reads a press release for the Family Hub Refrigerator unveiled at the CES in January 2016.
In those 17 years the smartest fridge the majority of us have seen is one in which the light turns on when you open the door, or maybe one that includes an ice machine. The reason we do not yet live in super smart homes is probably different for each device we have chosen not to buy. In the case of smart fridges the true reason for the lack uptake probably lies between cost and need.
While it may be useful to connect to a camera in your fridge, from your smartphone, while wandering around the supermarket, or have a touch-screen – fridge-door – grocery-list that connects directly to your supermarket online shopping system, these developments simply don’t justify the price difference for the majority of consumers.
So we’re not quite in the age of the smart fridge, undoubtedly and with the help of some cool early adopters, the price will come down and adoption will increase. The smart thermostat on the other hand is not matter of luxury, it is in essence a energy efficiency tool, which also adds convenience and comfort to the process of heating or cooling your home. The potential for success of the smart thermostat was underlined when Google acquired Nest Labs for $3.2 billion, and when British Gas setup smart thermostat subsidiary Hive in 2012.
However, Deloitte’s Mobile Consumer survey 2015 says that just 2% of households in the UK have a smart thermostat. There were similar levels of ownership of smart lighting systems, smart security cameras and smart appliances. Furthermore, only about one in 20 said they would consider buying such a product in 2016. The smart thermostat is designed to save users money, paying back the relatively small initial investment in a relatively short space of time, so if not for cost, then why don’t most homes have smart thermostats?
The next logical questions are, is the technology is ready, and does the end user has enough confidence in it. Last December, Nest, was hit with a software glitch that has seen a number of devices turning themselves off and leaving owners in the cold. In March, a glitch with British Summer Time changed Nest’s temperature settings at the wrong time, and the firm’s Dropcam security cameras also suffered an outage last autumn, leaving users unable to view their camera feeds.Perhaps even more off-putting for the market are the multiple cyber-security and privacy breaches from smart devices in recent years. Two researchers from Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP), discovered that Nest thermostats were actually giving out the home zip codes of its users. The team also found that the Ubi speaker, was sending voice chats and sensor readings over unencrypted HTTP, while the Sharx security camera transmitted video over unencrypted FTP, creating potentially huge violations of privacy.
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The smart home sector certainly can’t expect to build confidence in the market with severe lapses of security within technology that is so pervasive in users lives, and replace essential functions in our dumb but relatively dependable homes. For decisions on “the home”, just as decisions on “the family”, dependability, security and safety take precedence. Very few homeowners, especially those with families, would early-adopt a smart lock that might not work, a heating system that might fail in the depth of winter, or set up a smart camera that might allow strangers to look in on their home.
Each publicised fault or security lapse breeds doubt in the market and further sets back smart home development. The consumer electronics sector is entering home automation with fresh ambition, genius and innovation, but also with the same level of dependability as they are used to in entertainment and luxury devices.
For the new age of smart, IoT driven, home automation, companies need to test devices more extensively, build in stronger safeguards, and develop the resilience needed in order to create confidence in a market who already have dependable basic services that will continue to work just fine for a long time.