I'm Tired of Broken Smart Homes

Illustration for article titled Im Tired of Broken Smart Homes
Photo: Gizmodo

While smart homes can be pretty convenient, they also require a certain type of never-ending vigilance. Specifically, you have to keep up with which companies support what platforms, and if any mergers or acquisitions have royally screwed your entire setup. Then, you have to decide whether you’re going to go through the hassle of figuring out an alternative way to keep everything you have working the way it was, or if it’s just easier to reinvest entirely in another platform.

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Case in point: Google buying Nest. While that $3.2 billion acquisition happened six long years ago, in the before times of 2014, Nest founder Tony Fadell promised that nothing about the day-to-day operation of Nest would change. And for five years, that was mostly true. Then at last year’s Google I/O, Google killed Nest as everybody knew it, rebranding it Google Nest and announcing a forced migration. Works with Nest, the developer program that allowed for third-party integrations, was essentially kaput. Though developers could support existing Works with Nest products, new ones were a no-go.

Now, Philips Hue—one of the big guns in the smart home industry—has announced it will pull all support from Nest Thermostat, Nest Cam, and Nest Protect as of Nov. 17. The news was first reported by the Ambient, and in the app notifications users are receiving, Philips Hue notes that the disruption “will only be temporary” as Works with Nest features will eventually be integrated into the Google Home App.

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OK, but this transition has been in the works for roughly a year and a half now, and people are still waiting for full Works with Nest features to arrive on Google’s platform. According to the Ambient, once Works with Nest was axed, the ability to turn on or off your Hue lights based on Nest’s geofencing features was also killed. That capability only returned early last month, when Google introduced Home and Away Routines for the Google Assistant.

If you were one of those people who relied on Works with Nest to customize your Philips Hue lighting, this is beyond annoying. The whole point of a smart home, and in particular smart lighting, is to create a setup where your devices talk to each other to more easily automate your life. The platonic ideal is to create a routine where, say, you leave your home, your thermostat reduces the temperature, and your smart lights automatically turn off. When you return, those lights will automatically turn back on and your thermostat kicks in. These automations should be easy. They aren’t. They’re rarely perfect, and there’s a lot of trial and error before you get it right, but this is one of the reasons many people decide to invest in smart homes to begin with. And with this Nest transition, there are so many obstacles to keeping automation smooth.

For starters, forcing migration without having an alternative already in place on multiple smart home platforms was just asking for trouble. For example, Nest users who chose to operate their homes through Amazon Echo devices were screwed once the old Nest Alexa skill was murdered. The new Google Nest Skill not only forces users to migrate accounts, it makes you disable previous Works with Nest skills. Now if you peruse the reviews on the Google Nest skill, you’ll see plenty of 1-star customer ratings noting that setups that once worked flawlessly are now useless. Likewise, with this Philips Hue news, you’ll have more Nest users who might now have to figure out new ways to keep their routines—or devise new ways of using their devices entirely.

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Philips Hue advises in a blog that Nest users either link their Philips Hue account to the Google Home app, read up on how to set up Routines, and then possibly explore the Hue Labs formula. This...isn’t all that helpful if you’ve already invested in using Nest with Amazon Echo devices, however. Then again, you could just throw out all your Echo devices and re-buy cheaper Google Nest speakers and hubs like Google wants you to do. Alternatively, you could go through If This Then That (IFTTT), but that service also recently limited its free tier to three applets, meaning you’ll have to pay a monthly fee if you want more advanced automations. Or, maybe, you could just buy a HomeBridge or yet another device like the Starling Home Hub to jerry rig it through HomeKit if you’ve sufficiently bought into the Apple ecosystem. Or, you could just ditch Nest completely and opt for another company’s smart thermostat or cameras. Or you could just have at least one Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri smart speaker in your home, like I do, and build routines on each so that you never have to worry about a broken smart home. (Unless of course, you buy from a smaller company that has a high probability of eventually going out of business, leaving you with a bricked gadget.)

Any way you slice it, this is exactly the sort of ripple effect that regularly makes smart home users tear their hair out in frustration. It doesn’t matter that technically this has been in the works for a very long time. In an ideal world, Google would have replicated Works with Nest features fully into Google Home before killing the former. Ideally, full-featured solutions would’ve been rolled out to other platforms—like Amazon Alexa and HomeKit—before all this, too. But, nah, tech giants are petty when it comes to cultivating their walled gardens and the real “losers” are the consumers who don’t go all-in with one company’s suite of products.

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But the end result is you get folks who are just fed up with constantly fixing their broken smart homes. You get people staring at their lightbulbs before a move, dreading the nightmare of re-configuring routines and labeling which lightbulb is paired as what in their apps, wondering why, oh why, they didn’t just stick with “dumb” lighting. Honestly, until these companies learn how to play nice and let the consumer reliably build out their homes however they want, the smart home is never going to reach its full potential.

Consumer tech reporter by day, danger noodle by night. No, I'm not the K-Pop star.

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DISCUSSION

priest-of-maiden
Priest of Maiden

Smart homes are stupid & unnecessary. Your thermostat & lights don’t need an internet connection. Neither does your fridge, dishwasher, toaster, stove, furnace or A/C.