The Upgrade

Smart Home Technology Is Still Not Smart Enough

Get ready for disappointment when you unwrap “smart” gadgets this year

Lance Ulanoff
Published in
7 min readDec 20, 2018


Credit: cherry7966/iStock/Getty Images Plus

IIt’s a function of our collective laziness that turning Christmas lights on and off is a process worth automating. I’m not pointing fingers here: I’m lazy person number one and have been trying for years to get my Christmas lights on some sort of automated schedule. Light timers, little pluggable things that tick off the minutes until they hit a preset hour — they’ve all been in my home for years.

More recently, though, that desperate need to avoid flipping a physical switch has been married with my steady efforts to add smart devices to my home.

But as millions more people like me join the smart home revolution this holiday season (the Echo Dot was reportedly the most popular gift on Amazon on Black Friday and Cyber Monday), they’ll soon discover that the promise of a smart home is more like a rain check.

This year, I plugged my outdoor lights into an iDevices outdoor plug and connected it to Apple’s Home app. Then I set an automation so that the lights would automatically turn on at sunset and off at sunrise. It worked for a couple days.

Then, one morning, my wife looked out the front door and called to me.

“I thought the outside light was on a timer,” she said.

“It was,” I replied, knowing what was coming next.

“It’s on,” she said.

This wasn’t an isolated incident. In fact, my so-called smart home is really just a collection of semiautomated ticks and quirks:

  • My lights follow a schedule… until they decide to stop.
  • My security webcam tracks… the neighborhood cat and strong breezes.
  • My thermostat trains itself… to cook us at night.
  • My voice assistant pipes up… whenever it feels like it.

I’ve closely tracked the smart home revolution and watched as it started and sputtered in the early 1990s, earning some fun parodies that presaged our concerns about a too-wired home careening out of control:



Lance Ulanoff

Tech expert, journalist, social media commentator, amateur cartoonist and robotics fan.