It’s only the beginning of July, but already this season is turning out to be the summer of home automation. Let’s call it the summer of smart homes, because that sounds better.
In the past few weeks the number of significant DIY smart home announcements has been a little overwhelming. You’d think that with all the apps and wireless devices hitting the market, that by September the act of manually turning on a light switch will be as uncool as Crocs (OK, I still wear my Crocs).
Beginning mid-2013, the DIY smart home world had already seen some shaking up. Revolv, Staples Connect, SmartThings and a few other “hub” based products were shipping and being fairly well-received by users.
That trend continued with the Consumer Electronic Show and the months that followed.
Then Google bought Nest (which bought Dropcam), iControl bought Piper and Apple announced HomeKit.
At that point even the DIY doubters started to take second and third glances at these devices.
In just the past couple of weeks we’ve had major news from Staples Connect (more devices, cheaper price), Quirky/Wink (new system from Home Depot), Lutron (new DIY system for lights and shades) and several other intriguing developments.
What’s going on?
Two things contributing to the rise in smart home systems are improvements in wireless technologies (Z-Wave, Zigbee, ClearConnect, Bluetooth…) and consumer comfort with apps and smart phones.
This week I’ve been paying attention to the Facebook thread for our sister publication CE Pro, and noticed a number of revealing comments. One the one hand, professional installers, some at least, are getting a little concerned with all these new DIY systems. Some of the pros are concerned that easy and inexpensive control systems would cut into their professionally installed business. Other pro installers seemed worried that poorly performing DIY products would sour the public on the whole home automation thing completely.
Regarding the first worry—well, yes, DIY solutions may cut a little into the professional market, a little. Let’s face it, most professional installers and programmers cater to clients who don’t want to do anything themselves. They don’t cut their own lawns, clean their own pools or change the oil on their cars, so why would they be willing to spend hours figuring out an off-the-shelf smart home system. The new smart home systems will primarily appeal to people with smaller homes and smaller budgets, and that’s a win.
The second issue is more curious. Are these systems reliable enough? Well, the enough is the sticking point. I’ve spent time with many of these systems, installed them in my home, reviewed their programing and apps and felt the satisfaction of things working well, and a little of the anguish when they don’t. The success of most of these systems is really in their simplicity. Turning off lights, responding to motion sensors and performing planned activities on an if-this-then-that basis isn’t really very hard. Those in the professional home automation market know that their systems are much more complex. For the DIY user, the systems’ simplicity is really what makes them reliable.
Simplicity is also what will eventually make new users into smart home converts. What do technology converts do—they look for bigger and better things. iPod fans didn’t ditch their white ear buds because the ear buds didn’t work. Instead, people grew accustomed to the technology and eventually sought out better and more expensive devices—which led to the explosion of the high-end headphone market. Entry-level smart home systems may lead to bigger and better smart home systems in the same way.
Another complaint I hear about these new systems, especially by people who either aren’t familiar with them or believe they are a threat, is that they’re too hard to install for the average user. Anyone who spends 10 minutes setting up a Revolv or Dropcam will quickly have that myth dispelled. It’s really quite impressive how far the install and setup process for new smart home systems have come. On the other hand, for people who don’t trust their own ability to connect a few wireless devices, maybe we need an easy Internet of Things installer network. For the average middle class consumer, $500 and a few hours of work will give them a decent control or monitoring setup. Like most things, success is measured by expectation and knowing ahead of time what you’re getting into. Right now these systems aren’t suitable for large complex homes and they don’t integrate with home entertainment (not well anyway).
All this adds up to 2014 being an interesting year for the home automation world. I’m intrigued by all the ingenuity and investments going on in the market. I can’t imagine what this world is going to look like just a few years from now.
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Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. His latest book is Necessary Myths
. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.