The Smart Home Isn’t Very

Silicon Labs held its first-ever Works With conference last week to push forward the Internet of things, which, thankfully, has been acronymed to IoT. Twenty years after “visionary technologist” Kevin Ashton coined the term Internet of things consumers exactly haven’t lined up to jump on board.

For the residential market, before it was Internet of things, the term was home automation, which wasn’t very catchy, either. The idea that a home would be automated — making its own decisions about what went on inside — spooked people. It still does. A lot of people don’t like the idea of HAL 9000 in the hallway.

Sci-fi writers love to riff on the hacked smart home, depicting lights going on and off, room temperatures plunging and soaring to uncomfortable levels, alarms sounding at piercing decibel levels and doors sliding shut with occupants trapped inside. The rogue hacked home may be fiction on Mr. Robot, but it’s all too frightening a scenario for the average Josephine.

smart home
An intercom system from the 1960s.

The term “smart home” is a little friendlier. The National Association of Home Builders is credited with coining the moniker in 1984, and forward-thinking builders who wanted to differentiate their designs looked for ways to offer it. Under the smart home technology section on the NAHB website, written in 2017, the trade association announces “The Internet of Things (IoT) is here.”

But as much as NAHB is a proponent of the smart home, it’s also realistic about the potential pitfalls and risks. It lays them out with a list of blunt caveats on its website. Quality of build is one of them: “Some of these devices are poorly designed and made,” it says, and there’s little “independent product assessment of anything, including useful life.” Potential failures could exist for a long time, it says, “with results that range from annoying to catastrophic.” Ouch.

Standards are an issue, too — or, more accurately, lack of them. “To the extent that there are some standards, they are not necessarily consistent and the law is not well developed,” NAHB says. Another warning: There’s no consensus on standards governing design, manufacture or performance of smart home devices. Of the regulations that do exist, they’ve been enacted by different agencies, “leaving a hodge-podge of rules with no consistent regulatory or legal direction. And there are very few cases outlining liability and how judges and juries may treat liability questions.”

Other warnings surround software updates and a lack of commitment by manufacturers or developers to keep products up to date: “We often don’t know how long the company plans to support a product with software security upgrades or what a consumer must do to install the upgrades.” Privacy and security, the top concern of consumers, rounds out the list.

If I were building a home, I would be cautious about installing a smart home system for all of those reasons. Not that I don’t believe in what it can do because I’ve seen a lot of very cool smart home wizardry over the years. I’ve also seen too many latests and greatests sent to the recycle bin. I’d worry about being in constant upgrade mode. A previous home of mine had a defunct intercom system, leaving each room with nonworking skeleton of 1960s technology.

As for standards and protocols, I don’t like to be locked in. I like choice. I also don’t want to choose the wrong one. What if I had gone with Lowe’s Iris smart home platform a few years ago? It shut down in March of last year, and I’d have been SOL like all those that bought into the platform. The Lowe’s website says, “You’re on your own” in the FAQ on whether there’s a migration tool to transfer to another platform: “You will be responsible for resetting and re-pairing any devices to the platform of your choosing.” That sounds fun.

Participants at the Works With conference last week seemed to get it … finally … maybe.. Though billions of devices and sensors are said to have been linked in the IoT, it still hasn’t gone mainstream. Executives from heavy hitters including Amazon, Google and Comcast talked about incompatibility as a smart home stopper at retail and on e-commerce sites. People are confused about what works with which and are afraid of making a mistake or don’t want to bother with complicated setup and operation, execs acknowledged. They’re also really, really concerned about privacy and security.

Though billions of devices are connected in the IoT, Jamie Siminoff, CEO of Amazon’s Ring, envisions “hundreds of billions,” he said during the conference. That’s mainstream adoption, and builders and multi-dwelling units are key reaching those numbers.

Silicon Labs CEO Tyson Tuttle talks about the Works With conference in our September 11, 2020, podcast.

Amazon and Google recognize that. Amazon recently announced a program integrating the Alexa voice engine into residential properties, making it easier for property managers to work with smart home devices. Alexa for Residential promises to remove consumer and property manager pain points by allowing residents to walk in to a “ready-to-use, Alexa-powered smart apartment, with no account or device setup required.” In addition to typical Alexa features, they’ll be able to get property-specific info, such as the schedule for recycling.

Property managers can create custom Alexa skills, allowing residents to manage rent, maintenance requests and amenity reservations. They can set an Alexa-enabled device in vacant units to answer common questions, enable self-guided tours, or “demo smart home features available in each unit.” When a resident moves out, the manager can reset the Alexa device remotely.

Google, meanwhile, is talking up Connected Home over IP (CHIP), a Zigbee-led effort launched in late 2019 to develop a smart home standard, a “unified solution” for the industry. Now at 145 members, the group plans to deliver a draft specification by year-end 2020. Grant Erickson, a Google principal engineer, called CHIP a “critical movement to break through the fragmentation that’s holding the market back” with interoperable standards “people can rely on” and that will instill “builder confidence.”

In Google’s vision of the future IoT, based on ambient computing, “We won’t talk about connected,” said Erickson. At home, “we’re not going to talk any more about smart devices or connected devices,” he said. “It is just going to be the de facto ways things are,” and devices will “orchestrate themselves.”

Bring it on.

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