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What’s next for the smart home? A reason to buy one would be nice

Are you using a Nest to control the heating in your home? Does you car have an Internet connection? Are you wearing a smartwatch or even Google Glass? If so, you’re embracing the Internet of Things and can consider yourself a pioneer. However, all these examples are only the beginning, and the next stage in connecting every electronic piece of hardware you own to the Internet, a phenomenon that is just starting to get underway.

If you’ve got a vision of a simple, cross-platform connected home, you’re in for a bit of a wait.

At the IoT World Forum in London this month, companies gathered to chat about how to speed up the process. Unfortunately, if you’ve got a vision of a simple, cross-platform connected home, you’re in for a bit of a wait; the industry is waiting too.

What’s the problem? No one has stepped up to belt out to the world, “This is why you need a connected home, and it’s amazing!” Because no one’s quite sure what that thing is yet. The search for that solid, compelling reason to pay for all this cool, new, connected tech seems to be the holdup.

Related: You can’t avoid the the Internet of Things so you might as well understand it

The so-called Internet of Things has been around for years, although known under different names, and the lack of progress tells us no one really understands how to make the tech that’s now possible truly beneficial, or how to turn on the all-important money-making machine.

What is the solution, and who will provide it?

It was almost universally agreed that for the Internet of Things to take off, someone needs to get all the connected devices in our homes talking to each other, regardless of what they do or who manufactured it. One way to do this is with a central hub, through which all the data collected is filtered and synced with the cloud.

Nest

There was considerable buzz surrounding Microsoft’s appearance at the conference. Perhaps it would discuss its grand plan for the Internet of Things? Steve Dunbar, its Commercial Director of IoT, gave a keynote speech at the event. Is Microsoft our missing hero? No. It’s pushing the cloud-computing platform called Azure, which will provide the backbone for other companies to build the Internet of Things. Microsoft isn’t prepared to jump in and revolutionize our homes, just provide the software that drives it. Microsoft’s Senior IoT Solutions Specialist, Grant Peters, said it doesn’t intend to step up in the future either, and isn’t looking at partnering up with a hardware manufacturer to make a home hub.

Smart homes are cool and help us gadget-fans feel like we’re living in the future, but the actual benefit is still very unclear.

Peters talked about Nest, the connected thermostat, as an example of the elusive hub the IoT needs to expand. The idea is, connected devices in your home will be certified for use with Nest and feed their data to it. The Nest then syncs it with the cloud and farms it out to third-party apps and systems. If it works, it’ll solve the problem of owning different products made by various manufacturers, without the need for them all to talk to each other. Instead, they talk to the Nest. Much like Apple’s Made For iPhone system, smart-home appliances and gadgets would be Certified for Nest, making it easy to buy compatible products.

Telefonica, which owns the O2 network in the UK and various other networks around the world, has a similar idea, built around a smart meter managed by your energy provider. Deutsche Telekom/T-Mobile’s Head of Connected Home, Jon Carter, also talked about a generic unit to connect all our gadgets together. Carter was an ardent supporter of openness, saying if the Internet of Things is going to grow the industry needs to abandon closed, proprietary systems. Its own will be built around open APIs and adhere to open standards, so it will work with as many devices as possible.

tado-cooling-box-app-room_

That’s a good thing, and here’s why: There are at least 50 different connected home platforms out there now, all at different stages of life. However, not all of them will survive, ultimately leaving any early adopters with now-dumb gadgets connected to a useless proprietary system. When T-Mobile’s smart home hub arrives, we’re told to watch out for a Jump-style plan accompanying it, to help people choose the right hardware without being concerned about future-proofing.

Related: What ‘unloved’ home product will Nest reinvent next?

Interesting stuff, except Carter summed up the feelings of all those trying to kickstart the Internet of Things. by saying, “Despite the hype, we’re exasperated.”

The challenge is to sell the idea to us

Obviously, the race to control the Internet of Things is ongoing, and a mystery “big player,” whether it be Google, Apple, Microsoft, or an up-and-coming firm that isn’t a household name, has yet to emerge.

Smart homes are cool and help us gadget-fans feel like we’re living in the future, but the actual benefits of owning all this tech is still very unclear. At the moment, the Internet of Things is primarily being sold to us as a way to reduce our energy bills — with smarter thermostats and energy-monitoring devices — so firms like Nest and Tado wield considerable power. Your energy provider and ISP are strong candidates for winning the race, too. Telefonica has partnered with AT&T to turn its Digital Life platform into a worldwide, IoT system.

The downside is we’ll have to give up a considerable amount of personal information to enjoy all this automation, after paying out plenty of cash for new hardware, and potentially, a monthly subscription fee, too. It’s a hard sell, and no one has persuaded us it’s all worth it. It’s no surprise many companies, including Microsoft, are concentrating on selling the concept to businesses, where there’s clear value — it streamlines processes, and ultimately saves money.

Related: The smart home of the future will be all about telehealth, so what is that?

Until our hero arrives, the Internet of Things will remain this fragmented, confusing, amorphous creation it is now, and our boring old non-automated homes will stay relatively dumb.