Smart home device shipments grew 55% in 2018 over 2017 to total 252 million units with more than 70 million homes worldwide now having one or more smart home device, according to ABI Research. In parallel, research by Nielsen found that almost one in four U.S. homes (24%) now has a smart speaker, and IHS Markit predicted smart home revenues will reach $28 billion this year.
With those kinds of stats, you could be forgiven for thinking that the smart home is doing everything right. But I don’t think it is. In fact, I believe that the potential demand for smart home devices dwarfs the above growth numbers by an order of magnitude. But this growth isn’t happening quite yet, which begs the question: Why?
The traditional home security model…
To address that question, let’s take a quick look at the traditional home security market. Until quite recently, if you wanted to install an alarm system in your home, you’d typically turn to a security company. This meant your security system was installed by a trained professional, regularly tested (so less likely to false alarm) and continuously monitored.
But it would also mean you being locked into one vendor and a hefty, legally binding monthly fee. And if you wanted to add fire detection or CCTV monitoring, say, you’d have to go back to the same vendor and pay them to install an additional set of sensors and cameras of their choosing. Plus, your hefty monthly fee would get even heftier.
…tells us consumers hate feeling trapped
Home security firms have their place and aren’t going to disappear any time soon. But the rising popularity of do-it-yourself security systems is sending a clear message. (Maybe, like me, many consumers hate being locked into a single vendor — and that monthly fee.)
Equally revealing is that the growth in DIY security systems has occurred despite these systems not being particularly easy to set up or use. This situation has improved significantly with the evolution of various smart home ecosystems. But like a bunch of school children who have formed self-selected cliques at school, these ecosystems don’t play nicely with anyone outside their group.
As someone who works for a wireless chip company that supplies to the smart home sector and a keen amateur smart home enthusiast myself, this lack of end-user choice carries echoes of the traditional home security model mentioned above. And that concerns me.
If it’s not easy to use it won’t sell
The second thing that concerns me in the modern smart home market is ease of use. This includes consumers buying a device it if gives them the basic functionality they need, but ignoring any “advanced” features they deem too complex, and the rise of professional smart home installation firms that will come and do all the heavy lifting for you. Neither of these scenarios is ideal from a demand-creation perspective.
That said, smart home manufacturers do recognize that their devices have been too complex for consumers to set up and use. This is why they are focusing their development efforts on solving this. (GE, for example, has introduced some connected lightbulbs that work directly with Google Home using “Actions on Google” for pairing and communicating; users don’t even have to pair the Bluetooth-based bulbs with the hub.)
But all this is still happening within each smart home ecosystem silo.
Yes, any ease-of-use improvement will help further increase sales of smart home devices within each ecosystem. But it won’t be enough to deliver on the full potential of the smart home.
Making a smart home for everyone
The smart home is a wonderful, expanding, highly inventive, new industry sector; but right now, it’s also a mess.
Consumers want smart home devices that just reliably work — regardless of manufacturer or vendor ecosystem. They want to go out, buy any devices they like, bring them home and within minutes have them all up and running. And they want to be able to do it by themselves.
Consumers love to mix and match. And from a technical perspective this means the smart home industry adopting a multiprotocol, common industry standard. One that enables devices from any vendor or ecosystem to work seamlessly together. I think we have some way to go before this will happen.
And ultimately it will be cold, hard, commercial reality that will force the industry to drop the ecosystem cliques and learn to play nicely together.
Who’s going to make this happen is anyone’s guess at this stage. But the day it does, the smart home will rapidly and finally become the de facto feature it deserves to be in every modern home.
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