A smart home that responds to your every command and automates mundane tasks is a tantalizing dream. But the reality is that given the current limitations of technology, competing standards, and devices that quickly become obsolete, trying to make that dream a reality today just isn’t worth all the effort.
A few years ago, when I lived in a small two-bedroom apartment, I was utterly devoted to making my home smart. Every light was a smart bulb controlled through pre-scheduled routines and automations and a few would even automatically turn on when I got home and walked through the door. Robot vacuums criss-crossed the floors several times a day; fans, heaters, and air purifiers were all controlled from my smartphone with notifications when my attention was needed; and I could keep an eye on the nursery from literally any where in the world—as long as I had my phone and a signal.
But something happened that soured me on the whole smart home idea: I moved into an actual house. Once all the boxes were unpacked and life had returned to normal, I sat down one day to reinstall my collection of Philips Hue smart bulbs and became quickly overwhelmed with the task. Instead of two bedrooms, I now had four to deal with, plus a family room and separate living room, an upstairs, a downstairs, and everything from lamps to out of reach ceiling lights to upgrade. Figuring out where to put all the bulbs I had and how many more I’d need to buy to recreate my apartment’s setup was daunting, and it became even more so when I remembered I’d have to eventually configure everything—setting up rooms and programming complex schedules—using less-than-stellar apps. My eventual solution to the task was a simple one: I just ignored it, and three years later all of my Philips smart bulbs still sit unused in a box in a closet.
It’s not that I’ve turned into an old man yelling at clouds. I’m still genuinely excited to have a smart home that’s as smart and capable as what science fiction has promised us. I’m just no longer willing to jump through all the hoops needed to get a home that’s barely smart-ish right now.
Even if I woke up one morning determined to get all my smart bulbs installed and working in perfect harmony again, I’m certain the hubs needed for the bulbs to communicate with my home’s wireless network are out of date and will need to be upgraded. It’s an expense that’s not worth the payoff for me, and it’s one of the biggest problems with the smart home experience right now. There’s a lot of tempting upgrades out there, and at one point I was looking at installing replacement ceiling light fixtures featuring built-in smart speakers as way to keep as many smart devices as possible out of sight.
But I realized that after going through all the trouble of wiring in the new hardware, there was a very good chance the fixtures would be out of date in just a few years as companies continually introduce newer versions of streaming protocols like AirPlay and Bluetooth—and upgrading them would require yet another major rewiring job. Imagine having to drag your smart oven to the curb because one day Google decides that Google Assistant is the next random product on the chopping block.
The approach to the smart home needs to be more modular, so that upgrading my feature-packed fridge—an appliance that can last well past a decade—to be compatible with other upgrades, like faster wifi, is as easy as just swapping out a small component, not the entire appliance. Even the approach to smart bulbs is flawed. They’re still considerably more expensive than “dumb” LED bulbs, and a better approach is to make the lamps and light fixtures the smart part, so consumers don’t have to pay through the nose for the bulbs. There are more affordable approaches to making a home smart, and adoption will remain limited until the technology is available to a wider consumer base.
The idea of one company controlling and monitoring every piece of smart home equipment in my home is terrifying, and I would never be on board with that. But mixing and matching hardware from various companies in competition with each other also introduces its own complications. There’s no single company that produces the best smart home gear in every category, so savvy consumers usually end up buying into countless smart home ecosystems at the same time to get the hardware that best serves their needs—whether those needs prioritize functionality or price.
I’ve currently got Google Nest smart speakers all around the house, but at the same time I often make requests to Siri—like for setting cooking timers or asking about a recipe conversion—because Apple’s smart assistant is always strapped to my wrist. There’s a wireless camera monitoring a bird feeder from a different company, robot vacuums on different floors from two other companies, and air-purifying fans from yet another, and they all rely on their own separate smartphone apps. Right now there are more than 20 different apps in my iPhone’s “Remotes” folder. it’s exhausting jumping between them all, and I have little interest in adding more to the mix.
Every company wants their smart home ecosystem to win out so everyone has to buy their hardware (and other companies have to pay to play along). But there’s still no clear winner right now, and it’s resulted in a mish-mash of hardware that simply doesn’t play together nicely. My ideal smart home has me asking a single smart assistant to do everything from setting alarms, to pre-heating the oven, to sending a robo-vac to tidy up the kitchen, but that’s all but impossible right now.
This is not to say I’ll never make a push to make my entire home smart again. I’m just going to drag my feet until everyone decides to start playing nice together and the process doesn’t feel like assembling a puzzle with 10 different boxes of pieces all mixed together. We’ve come close to that: The sheer size and influence of Apple means that countless smart home devices from various companies can all be controlled and automated through HomeKit. But it’s not there yet, and you’ll often still have to hop back into a specific device’s own app to access its most advanced features.
There’s a potential light at the end of the tunnel, however, in the form of a new protocol called Matter.
The same way the home video market became cheaper and more diverse in the ‘80s when the inferior VHS format won out, and wireless charging became more ubiquitous once the Qi standard toppled the competition, the Connectivity Standards Alliance and its Matter protocol wants to make the smart home less of a headache by ensuring that products, even ones from competing companies, can all communicate and play nicely together.
With companies like Google, Apple, Amazon, and even Ikea supporting Matter, there’s a good chance it will succeed. I’m looking forward to the day that happens, because it will make setting up a smart home a much easier task. Instead of poring through forums trying to figure out if a specific motion sensor will be able to activate smart lights from another company, all consumers will really have to do is stick to products bearing the Matter logo. It’s a mentality shift I’m glad to see so many companies offering smart home upgrades finally embracing, because it will pave the way for a truly smart home, but it’s going to take a while. Getting a group of giant companies to agree on anything is a major hurdle, and then getting it into the hands of consumers, either through software upgrades or new products, is going to take even longer. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, however, and in a decade’s time Matter could deliver an effortless smart home—what I’m truly after—and not just a house full of smart gadgets, which is my current frustrating reality.