Is 2017 the year to make your home smart? I don’t think so


You can automate and make your home as ‘smart’ as you like but is it all worth the investment or is the hype way ahead of the reality. Guess what I found?

home smart
That smart fridge

As a technology industry analyst, I see all manner of gadgets one can attach to one’s home. You can make a home ‘smart’, ‘wireless-enabled’, etc. and have dozens of internet-connected devices pumping out digital exhaust into the cloud.  So, when I had the opportunity to outfit my new-ish home into more of a 21st century home, I jumped into the concept. Bear with this enterprise analyst as I critique U.S. consumer technology.

The smart doorbell

The first item I implemented was a wireless, interactive doorbell. This device detects motion and video calls me on my smartphone when someone rings the doorbell. I got it as I travel a lot and also because I get a number of packages. It has both utilitarian and security value to me. If you are an aspiring Amazon Prime junkie, this technology is a good one.

The technology requires a smartphone to help the device connect to your home Wi-Fi. My Google Project Fi phone is too clever for this and I had to use my son’s iPhone to make the initial installation. It seems my phone is constantly switching between Wi-Fi, T-Mobile, Sprint and Google’s network so that it couldn’t connect with the doorbell.

After installation, it has worked fine. Because of my doorbell’s placement, I now get daily updates as to when the postal truck comes by the mailbox, the city trash truck pulls up to my house, etc.  I like it and I’ll keep it.

Cable/Satellite TV is NOT wireless

I tend to live in houses for long periods of time. For this house, I wanted televisions but I didn’t want to look at coax coming out of wall jacks and power cords on walls. I didn’t want my dresser or mantle cluttered with descrambler boxes, cable modems, Wi-Fi routers, etc. I mean, this is the 21st century. We have wireless technology, blue-tooth and other protocols for communications. Surely, the paid television services have this. Right?

Wrong. To get wireless signals to a television, you still need to have a clunky device wired to your television and that box needs, you guessed it, a power cable. This ‘technology’ is wireless only in that you don’t have coax cable running to the box. This is clearly a failure of the industry as it’s NOT wireless. Will you get a new aesthetic look with today’s ‘wireless’ television boxes? No – it’s more of the same ugliness.

Cable/Satellite boxes are still big, impractical and ugly

I’ve had a small Roku device and have seen plenty of Chromecast USB plug-ins. But the equipment the cable/internet folks use is still hefty and oh, so, twentieth century. If others can reduce the size of their technology to the USB thumb drive footprint, why can’t this industry?

What’s even worse, the transformer bricks on the power cords for these ‘wireless’ devices are way too big. If you have recessed outlet plugs, you’ll have to choose whether to plug in the television or the ‘wireless’ device but not both. Talk about an epic fail…

You’ll either get great internet or great TV but not both

The lowest speed option from my internet provider is still delivering 70 mbps throughout my entire house. I know – lucky me. The competitor’s solution that my neighbors have delivers 6-14 mbps tops. However, my internet provider can only deliver television via old-school coax. The competitor can give me their supposed wireless solution for television but only with creaky internet speed.

Talk about suboptimal, non-21st century technology. Yet another fail.

Why are you selling me phone service?

Talking about old school, every internet/television provider wants to suck me into a bundle (whose pricing they can’t compute!) that includes phone service. When Comcast wiped out my landlines a year ago, I decided then, and there, I’m not going back. It’s wireless phones for us.

So, why do these firms continue to sell landline or VOIP phone service? They make the bundle such that phone service is essentially free. Whether you pick one, two or all three services, they’re charging the same basic price. Consumers have no bargaining power here. Regulators should slap them down for this.

My new smart TVs are spying on me

I was surprised, sort of, to see my television service provider request permission to monitor my viewing. They want to replace ads with ones they think are more appropriate for me. I said NO.

I acquired two new smart TVs as part of this move.  I was surprised at how much information these devices need/want prior to actually displaying television programming. Both brands of televisions wanted all kinds of access to the house wireless network. They also wanted my zip code and I suspect it wasn’t to understand the time zone my house is located within.

One television went further looking to capture information about the kinds of programming I like and my hobbies/interests.  This information was intrusive, unnecessary and unwelcome.  If “smart” television means smart enough to spy on you, then these televisions meet the description. I prefer a “dumb” television instead although I am sure some wag in the peanut gallery will come up with lurid examples of what my reported interests ‘could’ have been.

How smart a thermostat do we really need?

The new house came with an expensive programmable thermostat. It wasn’t wireless enabled, though. I downloaded an instruction manual for it, sat down and entered the temperature and times. Once done, I really don’t see any further cost justification for going wireless with this.

I don’t anticipate needing to adjust my thermostat remotely or via smartphone. For us, changing a thermostat setting is a once in a while event not something that requires constant adjustment via the fiddling with our smartphone.

My verdict: I’ll keep the original thermostat.

(Editor’s note: what do you do when you’re on one of your frequent trips?)

Wireless light switches/outlets

You’ve likely seen these devices advertised where you can control an electric outlet or switch remotely via a smartphone or tablet. These ads are a staple of late night television.

The more I looked into this technology, the less I felt the need to acquire it. I already have some timer-based switches that can turn lights on/off just fine. But, longer-term, I will likely get these. The ease of installation and low cost make them a potential winner.

What’s next?

I’m now evaluating wireless security for the house but, as with the cable service, I’ve got reservations about how wireless this technology will really be.

I’m reviewing each new technology against the following criteria:

  • Will it really make my life easier?
  • Is the technology really easy to deploy?
  • Will the technology require any destructive activity (e.g., cut into walls)?
  • Will the technology spy on me?
  • Is the cost of the technology vs. its value at an appropriate tradeoff point?
  • Which ones do I deploy immediately and which ones are implemented later?

(Editor’s note: European security companies off some passable wireless remote security services that include cameras,vibratio sensors and the like.)

My take

It’s been a mixed bag.  I concluded that:

  • The hype ran ahead of the reality of some of these technologies (e.g., wireless tech that isn’t really wireless).
  • Consumer personal privacy was not factored into several of these technologies. I suspect some vendors never gave it a thought.
  • Vendors clearly need to work on smaller form factors for their products and less destructive means to implement their products.
  • The cost/value tradeoff just isn’t there for some solutions.

I also found myself thinking about how much time I want to spend tethered to a smartphone adjusting things versus enjoying the time, view and places I’m visiting. It turns out that I want to avoid a lot of that low-value activity. If that means I’m not trying to turn down my thermostat 2 degrees because a concert is running long, I’m okay with that. I came to hear the music not play with a thermostat app on my cell phone.

I’ll keep adding more smarts to the new house when I’m convinced (not sold) on their real value. And in case you’re wondering, the parallels with enterprise software are there to be seen.

Image credit - Smart Home Internet of Things objects © bakhtiarzein via fotolia