The Upgrade

Smart Home Technology Is Still Not Smart Enough

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

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:

“Moved in at last. Finally, we live in the smartest house in the neighborhood,” wrote Michael Schrage in 1993 in an eerily prescient tech humor column in the Los Angeles Times.

Everything’s networked. The cable TV is connected to our phone, which is connected to my personal computer, which is connected to the power lines, all the appliances and the security system. Everything runs off a universal remote with the friendliest interface I’ve ever used.

Of course, Schrage’s dreams soon transformed into this:

This is a nightmare. There’s a virus in the house. My personal computer caught it while browsing on the public access network. I come home and the living room is a sauna, the bedroom windows are covered with ice, the refrigerator has defrosted, the washing machine has flooded the basement, the garage door is cycling up and down and the TV is stuck on the home shopping channel.

I recently tracked down Schrage, who currently serves as a research fellow with MIT Sloan School’s initiative on the digital economy. He told me via email that this fake diary of smart home mania was one of his most popular columns. He’d tapped into a nearly universal desire to live in the home of the future, even one that could turn on its owner.

“The ‘nightmare’ always struck me as obvious,” Schrage told me. “Even though ‘malware’ had yet to become a term du jour, it seemed pretty clear that these sorts of systems would always attract disproportionate mischief-makers and bad actors.”

But that nightmare scenario of a single system undermined by a smart home virus is far from our current smart home reality — which is actually part of why existing gadgets are so frustrating. There is no single system, and one smart gadget may or may not talk to another. In my house, my Nest devices are a pretty tight bunch, but they’re blissfully unaware of anything I have running on Apple’s HomeKit, and my HomePod is not on speaking terms with my Nest smart thermostat.

Back when Schrage wrote that story, and even when I helped cover the burgeoning smart home space a decade later in PC Magazine, we envisioned centralized systems with a sort of single, globally aware consciousness that would connect and control virtually everything. But it hasn’t turned out that way.

Instead of a single remote or screen, we have chatty speakers, smartphones, and multiple apps. Aside from Wi-Fi, there is no agreed-upon standard for smart home operation and control. Centralized, basement-to-roof-spanning intelligence remains a distant concept. Our smart homes are actually a growing collection of smart things, some that talk to each other, others that do not.

The confusion starts at the top, where manufacturers and retailers are pushing individual smart home gadgets with little guidance or thought to how average homeowners might integrate them.

In Home Depot, the smart home area is tiny and underfed. There are switches, plugs, lights, and thermostats with almost no information about how any of them might work together or be controlled. It’s up to the consumer to check the product boxes for the critical “Supports Alexa” or “Google Assistant” or “HomeKit” or, if they’re lucky, all of the above.

I give some credit to my local consumer electronics store, P.C. Richard & Son, which has a larger and better organized smart home area than most, with each platform, and supported smart gadgets, cordoned off into its own space. There’s even a printed “Smart Home 101” guide that the company co-produced with a local newspaper.

It includes a little narrative describing how a true smart home could work, with everything from the outdoor security lights to a robot vacuum and even a smart mattress, all coordinated and programmed for your comfort. But one line caught me: “What sounds like science fiction is reality in 2018 if you, like 32 percent of U.S. homeowners, have a smart home.”

I wondered about the provenance of that statistic. Are 32 percent of Americans really living in smart homes? A third of us are fully automated? Not quite. The statistic comes from a recent Parks Associates study on smart home penetration. It found that 32 percent of broadband-enabled U.S. homes had at least one connected device.

That’s one, not the five or 10 that might identify a dwelling as truly smart. And while it’s not that I think people shouldn’t buy these smart home gadgets and try some home automation, there are some harsh, inescapable realities:

Platform wars: Not all gadgets work with every platform. Just remember to check before you gift or buy.

Too many apps: Many smart home devices have their own apps and service registrations, which may or may not work with your smart home platform or voice assistant of choice.

Your Wi-Fi may not be ready: Even though most homes have broadband and Wi-Fi, the coverage may not accommodate wirelessly connected devices in every corner of the home.

“This old house”: While much of today’s smart home technology is plug and play, there are still many things, like Wi-Fi updates for smoke detectors and video doorbells, that may require more expertise or even infrastructure upgrades to work properly in your home.

The name game: For virtually every smart gadget you install, you’ll have to identify where it’s installed in the home and give it a name. These are not inconsequential tasks. You’ll be using those identifiers every time you want to ask your voice assistant to, for instance, turn off the living room light.

There’s always the unexpected: The other day, my Amazon Echo started glowing orange. It was still connected to the internet and was even able to answer my Alexa queries. Thinking the system was undergoing an update, I left it alone for 30 minutes, then a full hour. As it continued to glow, I tried asking Alexa what the system was doing. It didn’t understand the query. Finally, I went old-school and unplugged it and then plugged it back in. That solved the issue.

Companies like Amazon have sought to mitigate these issues by creating relatively open systems. Alexa Skills, in particular, makes adding disparate smart hardware to the mix relatively easy, as long as you don’t mind authenticating devices through a third-party platform before adding it to the Alexa network. Apple’s HomeKit makes it even easier to add new smart products: You just scan the product’s HomeKit QR code or ID number through the Home app on your iPhone. However, Apple’s more tightly controlled system (for security, Apple says) accommodates fewer third-party products than Amazon.

Amazon, Apple, and Google are all trying to recreate that single-screen control ideal, but none of them have nailed it.

I asked Schrage if he’s surprised about how different the smart home reality is from the one he envisioned 25 years ago. He said that his concept of a single, universal remote control was an oversimplification, “but, yeah, I thought you’d work with your landlord/cable company/home security firm/etc. and have things easy-peasy by 2005.”

In the meantime, I’m trying to figure out why my smart outlet left my Christmas tree on, why my outdoor Christmas lights follow their automation routine only 50 percent of the time, and why my back-door smart light forgets to turn off every other day.

There’s nothing like smart technology to make you feel so dumb.

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

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