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The Internet of Things is now the Smart Home: New name, same frustrating problems

In the last year or so, we’ve stopped saying “the Internet of Things” and moved on to say “smart home” when referring to all those connected products we keep hearing about. It sounds like a similar catch-all phrase that encompasses everything from Bluetooth light bulbs to your Sonos audio system. Except it’s not. None of us live in a smart home, regardless of how many of those gadgets you already own. No, we’re a long way from that. We’re only barely living in a connected home, a netherworld somewhere between the IoT and the super cool smart home of the future.

Don’t be fooled though. This is an old-school rebranding exercise to obfuscate the fact we’re no closer to having a smart home than we were 12 months ago.

What’s the difference?

At the Smart Home Summit in London, which took place between September 29 and 30, both the connected home and the smart home were discussed at length. We can forget about the Internet of Things; that’s old news. What we’ve got now is the connected home, and that’s code for a whole mess of stuff that doesn’t work together, is confusing and expensive to buy, and is found in a market so dense that Googling the term “smart home” is enough to put even the most enthusiastic geek off.

To make our homes (and lives) smart, they all need to talk and interact with each other, seamlessly.

What’s the difference between a smart home and a connected home? It’s actually quite simple. Existing connected products, from those in the home to in our car, don’t communicate with each other very well. To make our homes (and lives) smart, they all need to talk and interact with each other, seamlessly.

Here’s how it’ll work. At the moment, a connected thermostat learns your regular movements, so it makes sure the house is warm when you get home at six. But it’ll probably be freezing if you come home unexpectedly at 4. The smart home would have had a good conversation with your car to know you were headed home early, and that it’s because you’re not feeling well, then adjust everything accordingly — if you had a fever, you wouldn’t want a baking house. To get the same result in the connected home, actions are required on your part, and forget about any of it working if someone else is already home and has changed the settings already.

Luxury future living

If that degree of autonomy and intelligence hasn’t got you excited about the smart home, and its benefits over the connected home, how about this. Think of the future smart home as the residential equivalent of living in a luxury serviced hotel, where all of the stuff you don’t want to do — organizing the washing, doing the grocery shopping, optimizing the heating, and maintaining a security system — is done for you, leaving lots of time for doing cool stuff. Or, at least, more work so you can pay for it all.

Suddenly, the connected home looks a bit rubbish, and the Internet of Things a quaint old phrase that’ll soon be consigned to the tech history books. When’s the smart home coming? Hold on. First, there needs to be a shift away from the gadget-orientated connected home, to a smarter, more thoughtful way of living.

Nest thermostat
Nest thermostat

Among the companies at the summit were Nest and Jawbone, and although they didn’t share the stage at the same time, both described a future that almost required the pair work together. For Nest, the smart home is one in which technology fades into the background, and everything works without you really knowing. For example, in the terrible event of a fire, your smart smoke alarm will turn off the boiler automatically and signal a video camera to start recording, then send a notification to your smartphone. On a less traumatic level, the smart washing machine only starts when you’re not home, so you don’t have to hear it.

Jawbone says wearables will be the device that ensures you’re an integral part of this smart home. The sensors in close proximity to your body tell the thermostat you sleep better when the room is at a particular temperature and can tell the car when you’re stressed out and to put something relaxing on the stereo. We’re already seeing this come into effect, on a basic level, thanks to recipes created with IFTTT.  Research Director Adrian Drozd from Frost and Sullivan agrees that wearables will be key to the smart home experience, and his vision goes way beyond IFTTT’s capabilities — from using biometrics to identify you, to monitoring health, to making a complete wrist-worn control system. All with limited interaction from you.

Wait, it’s coming, eventually

Like the Internet of Things, the idea of the smart home is compelling and exciting. If you were sold on the IoT idea, then you’ll be equally sold on the smart home, even if the sales pitch sounds strangely familiar. Forget about the energy saving, convenience, and safety aspects; the tech coolness alone makes us want a smart home tomorrow. That takes us back to the question of when it’s coming?

The general consensus from the speakers at the summit was that we’ll have a smarter home in about five years but not a real smart home. That’ll come at some undefined future date. How about the connected home? According to Eamon Conway from Climote, “it’s nearly here, but progress is slow.” I’m left to assume the Internet of Things must have already come and gone, and I missed it when distracted by another shiny object.

At the risk of being called a cynic or a pessimist (it has happened, amazingly), this convenient dismissal of the Internet of Things, and the creation of the connected home and the smart home, is just a new way to prolong the wait to buy coherent, reasonably priced smart-home products. And the reason is because nobody understands how to sell it to anyone.

Everyone, including the buying public, is baffled

The names may be different, but the problems are exactly the same, and the key issues behind getting us all to invest in the smart home haven’t been solved. Companies are still deliberating over platform support, retailers are trying to find ways to sell the entire concept to us, and the best energy companies can come up with are subscription services to make the whole thing more affordable. To illustrate how entirely baffled everyone is on what to do next, one retailer at the summit talked about having home installers who come to fit your new washing machine try to open a discussion on smart homes when they notice a blown light bulb in the kitchen. Yeah, that’ll do it.

Most agreed the connected home — not the smart home — will need to follow the same strategy used for the rapid adoption of smartphones, including long-term contracts and subscriptions, to take off. Therefore those companies dominating mobile will also play a big role in pushing forward with connected home technology.

Jawbone Up 4
Jawbone Up 4

This doesn’t solve the fact regular people don’t fully understand connected or smart homes, and worse, have absolutely no idea of its benefits. They rightfully worry about security, privacy, or relinquishing so much control over their lives to faceless corporations. Coincidentally, the industry has exactly the same problems, but is so wrapped up in trying to make money, it’s not making those issues the focus.

Last year, I visited the IoT World Forum (notice the name) and wrote a piece on how no-one knew how to sell the concept. Almost a year on, and outside of coming up with some new names, nothing much has changed. What a crying shame.

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