The promise of the connected home is that everything from door locks to light bulbs will be smart and Internet connected. But the challenge facing product makers in the connected home industry is that not every consumer is willing to take the time and effort to program their new devices and learn how to get them to work, and this is the puzzle some very big companies are trying to solve.
How to reach critical mass in what is widely viewed as a potentially huge market was the focus of Connections, a three day conference held in South San Francisco last week that attracted standing-room-only crowds to the keynote sessions. A parade of speakers talked glowingly about the future potential of the connected home, but the strategy for realizing it was the subject of great debate.
“The hope is that we’re all going to win in this space because the market is only going to get bigger,” said Ryan Petty, vice president of product development for ADT Security Services.
Before the market expands, however, device makers know that they have to find a way to make their products more consumer friendly and simpler to install. Many smart home user manuals run well in excess of 20 pages and the installation instructions can be absolutely confounding, a problem many of the conference speakers agreed had to be fixed.
An example from the user wiki-guide for the Texas Instruments Smart Home and Energy Gateway product, for example, includes the following description: “The U-boot on AM335x uses a two stage approach. The size of internal RAM in AM335x is 128KB out of which 18KB at the end is used by the ROM code.”
As Farooq Muzaffar, the vice president of corporate strategy and development for Verizon, put it succinctly last week, “Consumers don’t want to be programmers.”
Verizon’s presence at a smart home conference underscores the high stakes as companies large and small maneuver for position in the automation market. Muzaffar would like to see the smartphone become the device of choice for managing and controlling all of the connected products in the home, and he argues that the big companies (like Verizon) should be the ones to take the lead.
“We’re slow and we’re not the most innovative, but we do have the resources and we have the time,” said Muzaffar.
Another big player who delivered a keynote last week was Comcast who clearly is in favor of a unified platform standard for the smart home – on their platform. According to Daniel Herscovici, senior vice president and general manager of Comcast Xfinity, his company’s strategy is to market connected devices to their existing customer base by providing them with “a taste of automation” that will whet their appetites for more.
Comcast is having some success getting its message across and is beefing up their offering. More than 500,000 homes are enrolled in the cable giant’s home automation platform, and they recently announced the addition of the popular Nest thermostat, Lutron lights, August smart locks, and the Rachio sprinkler to their portfolio of Comcast-supported connected products. “We want to bring all of the best devices together on one platform,” said the Comcast executive.
One of the strategies being debated is whether the DIY (do it yourself) approach to home automation will lead to wider acceptance of related products. Today, more than 1,800 Target stores opened designated areas within their electronics section called “Connected Life” that now feature home cameras and sensors. This follows Best Buy’s announcement last year that they were updating 400 of their stores with “Connected Home” departments.
To address customer confusion about how to install many of these products themselves, Lowe’s has taken the unusual step of creating and posting an installation video for every connected home device they sell. “The awareness is going up and it’s going to continue to go up,” said Kris Bowring, Lowe’s director of business and channel development.
Yet other panelists expressed skepticism that DIY will ultimately prove to be a viable model for the connected home space. “DIY sounds like work to me,” said ADT’s Petty. “It’s between what I want to do on Saturday and what I have to do on Saturday.”
No one at the Connections conference was prepared to say that the connected home will gain huge consumer acceptance quickly, with many speculating that four to five years seemed reasonable. In fact, during one panel session on wearable devices, a smartphone-generated poll of the room’s audience revealed that less than 20% of those present believed that home automation would have the fastest growth over the next five years (most voted for health and fitness tracking). And these were people with a vested interest in the connected home industry.
This is symbolic of the challenge facing home automation today. As disruptive startups are capitalizing on new connected technologies nearly every month, four to five years seems like an eternity and raises the concern that this is still an industry facing a locked door and no one has found the key to get inside.