IoT for Home - Ready For Prime Time?

Smart Home

The introduction of the Internet of Things into the home is really an extension of home automation that started back in the 70s with the Smart House movement. The early innovators back then had grand plans for automating heating/cooling systems, controlling lighting and appliances, and more. By 1986, the National Association of Home Builders predicted 500,000 new houses would be incorporating home automation by 1991, and over a million by 1995.

While a number of vendors backed Smart House, it didn’t take off for a number of reasons:

  • Connectivity. It was all copper back then - means wires. There was no internet (that emerged in the late 80s, early 90s), and definitely no WiFi (802.11, the standard upon which WiFi is based, was first released in 1997). Wiring a house to be “smart” was expensive.
  • Computing Power. Remember that computers back then were big, expensive boxes that couldn’t hold a candle to the computing power of today’s cell phones. For the home, the IBM PC/XT was competing against the Apple II - both were 8-bit machines with little RAM and even less disk space. There was no cloud either, so all of the brains had to be in the home.
  • Devices. Lightbulbs were just that - light emitting devices. No smarts here - unless you count the person flicking the switch. That meant expensive relays and other controllers connected to the computers.
  • Software. Back then, it was all custom. Easy, but custom.
  • Cost. Adding up the expensive computers, the expensive wiring, and the expensive retrofitting of devices was more of a hobby and experiment than a ready-for-prime-time lifestyle change.

We’re Going To Change The Game

It’s taken about 30 years for the technology to mature enough in terms of sophistication and pricing to enable the transition from Smart House of the 80s to the Smart Home of today.

Like any new technology adoption, the Internet of Things for home use is starting to shift from the early adopters to the early majority in the adoption curve. This means that more and more homes are buying into some form of automation. An unscientific poll of the local hardware store sees lighting, thermostats, sprinklers, and locks are readily available - all affordable, and all controllable from a mobile phone.

Aziz! Light!

The place most of the early adopters have started their Smart Home journey is, ironically, the same place that home electrification itself started - lighting. Vendors like GE and Philips are offering “smart lightbulbs” along with the controller hubs necessary to let homeowners control their lighting with apps on their mobile devices.

After lighting typically comes thermostats, alarm systems, sprinklers, and garage door openers. These are incremental steps over previous solutions, as they simply add a communications component to an existing remote control and management capability.

Where IoT is diverging from traditional home automation and remote control is the automation of traditionally non-automated “things” such as door locks, appliances, and even the homeowner’s voice.

Is It Safe?

Unfortunately, also like any new technology, security appears to have been left as an after-thought. A number of vendors have equated “safe to use” with the security aspects of the communications, using encryption, SSL, and the like.

Safety needs to be all-encompassing, including safety impacts on the home environment, protecting privacy, personal information, increased risks, and even potentially new threat vectors as a result of the automation. Home automation safety isn’t just about the safety of the technology - it’s about the safety of the home and the users.

This Means Something

Finally, the big question that a lot of the vendors continue to struggle with is “how does it make life better”? What is the value-add? Why should/would people shell out the big bucks?

The market is still in the early adopter stages, and we are already seeing early innovation vendors struggling and even folding (more on that in a moment), while others have already bailed out and sold to larger organizations trying to buy their way into the market.