Is the Smart Home ready?

I have written a lot about Internet of Things (IoT) lately, but I have largely focused on industrial and other non-consumer uses for the concept. My view is that IoT for the consumer and for the enterprise are going to go down two very separate paths. Enterprise IoT is always going to be highly fragmented with every industry going down a slightly different path. By contrast, I believe that IoT for the consumer and the home could potentially be unified by a small number of players (Apple, Google, Amazon maybe). At this year’s CES, I spent a lot of time looking at IoT for the home, or the “Smart Home”. There is probably a similar piece to be written about wearables, but I spent little time on that this year.

The Smart Home space is still already incredibly fragmented. And while there are dozens of companies entering the space, I think we are starting to see many of them are running out of ideas.

On the one hand, there are dozens of Smart Home ideas out there:

Thermometer Humidity Senor Water Spigot
Sprinkler Control Garage Door Light Switch
Electric Socket Heat and AC Control Smoke Detectors
Home Alarms Refrigerator Range and Oven
Water Purifier Water Heater Sous Vide cooker

 

On the other hand, the amount of utility that any of these provide is pretty questionable right now. For instance, I saw one company making a connected ‘smart’ oven. This oven allowed users to remotely turn it on and off. I am still struggling to think why I would want such a thing, let alone pay $100-$200 for it. And I like my gadgets. Yes, it would be nice to turn on my oven from an app when I begin the commute home. But someone still needs to prep the ingredients and put them in the oven. No app can replace that, and I see no sense in leaving perishables in a cold oven all day. Very little utility for a considerably higher cost – this seems to be the theme of many IoT products for the home.

To make matters worse, the categories that are a little more promising are already very crowded. I counted at least two dozen companies making ‘smart’ electric sockets. This is a great idea, as it allows for retro fitting (a big smart home problem), but these are not complex products and can easily be produced by low cost competitors.

Further complicating the smart home is the struggle to get all these gadgets to talk to each other. Managing the smart home has to be incredibly simple, or no one will adopt it. So far, that goal is far away. For this reason, I think the leading digital players have a big head start. Apple, Amazon, Google and a few others could theoretically build a simple system with a very powerful User Interface (UI). So far, none have done so.

I think the one clear sign of progress I saw at the show was the advancement of Apple’s Home Kit. There are still very few actual Home Kit devices on the market, but I did find dozens of circuit boards and modules ready to go. The Asian supply chain has apparently spent the past year or so getting boards certified by Apple (no easy process). They are now ready to go, and as I mentioned earlier, this means the rest of the industry can start turning things out relatively quickly. I have no idea if anyone will actually do that.

A small side note. I did get a chance to play with the Anova Sous Vide cooking stick. This is a nice device, and something original. I like to cook and will buy one of these. More importantly, it shows that there is still room for companies with good ideas and good design to build something new and useful.

 

Automobiles Taking Over CES?

A common refrain I heard was the auto companies seemed to want to make a major statement at the show this year. The North Hall of the Convention center has always had a lot of auto makers and suppliers, but this year they filled the entire hall, occupying the extra 40% of space that in past years has gone to peripheral vendors of accessories. I have not done much work on autos, so I will not touch on the subject here. But as I have said before the coming comsumerization of the auto supply chain is a big opportunity for component makers. It is also an area where tradition suppliers and the auto OEMs themselves are struggling to catch up.

I heard one story about an electronics salesman who covered the auto OEMs as clients for years. He said “Ten years ago we brought them all sorts of ideas, but they said they did not want to make their interiors look like ‘Christmas Trees’. Now they are racing to us, asking for help. They have realized that the key demographic of young buyers’ top ten things they want in a car are all things the OEMs cannot do. They are all electronics related – not torque or horsepower.”

 

2 responses to “Is the Smart Home ready?

  1. Thanks for another very useful post Jay. I would push back slightly though in saying that I can easily envisage a far broader usage case for a connected oven than you’d suggested. What I think would be very useful would be a connected oven with an internal camera, and perhaps a humidity sensor. The camera would allow me to monitor what I’m cooking – even if that’s just keeping an eye on my freezer pizza while I’m in the other room watching a big third-down play. Some smart image analysis and a drop in humidity could send me an alert if the system thinks that I’m burning the edges, or about to. Alternatively, imagine that you’ve labored to put together a nice lasagna, but realize at the last minute that you lack fresh basil to garnish it with, or whatever. You need to run out to the store, but fear that you might burn it if you get stuck in traffic, or have to go all the way to the super market if your local veg seller has already sold out for the day. Having the ability to remotely turn the oven down or off according to what the in-oven sensor shows you might actually be worth the additional $100-200 of cost over the lifetime of an item like a stove – especially as stoves typically last well more than a decade.

    • Matt
      You have some good examples. I would divide them into two buckets:
      1) Remote control – The ability to remotely adjust and monitor the oven. You and I both cited different use cases for this, and your examples make sense. That seems like a useful feature, for some, but I think we disagree about the cost. Adding $200 to the cost of a $1,000 oven is arguably a lot of money, +20%. At those levels, I think that few people will pay up for the feature, they are definitely ‘nice to have’ not ‘need to have’. If I were a maker of ovens, I would be very cautious about adopting this. I have to be responsible for repair of the module, which means whenever someone has problems connecting the oven to their home wi-fi network, I have to take the phone call, and possibly a truck roll, which eats up all my margin on the oven. So I am going to be reluctant to add the module except to high-end models. There is just a lot of chicken-and-egg type problems associated with this. So I think the adoption of the smart oven takes many years as the price of the module falls and we get a clearer sense of which Operating systems become commonplace in the home.

      2) The second use case is software monitoring of the oven. I think this is a super interesting point. When we have enough optical/temp/humidity sensor data in an oven to apply some software to the cooking process, that would mean we are actually adding something very new to ovens. When the oven has something that makes me a better cook (an admittedly low bar), it opens up the door to new sales and marketing efforts from the appliance makers. It probably is not enough to accelerate the adoption/cost curve, but you definitely make a good a point about the ability for the ‘smart home’ to offer more appeal.

      Thanks for reading.

      Thanks for reading.

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