The Problem With The Internet Of Things

Editor’s note: Dan Conlon is CEO and co-founder of Cocoon, a smart home security device currently crowdfunding on Indiegogo.

Lightbulbs, washing machines, thermostats, fridges and locks. If you believe the Internet Of Things salespeople, over the next 10 years, everything in your home is set to become connected.

Imagine a world where you could turn on your porch light from the office or unlock your door for a visitor, all from a smartphone app. Well, like a growing number of early smart-home adopters, I have seen this future today — and let me tell you, it’s a mess.

Blame the interface. Connected slow cookers and smart plugs may be turning on geeks today but, if user experiences are not improved quickly, the smart home dream is at risk of going belly-up.

As a case in point, take one of the connected home’s leading lights — literally. Philips’ Hue lightbulbs impress aficionados for being controllable via a mobile app from any location. That’s fine for truly remote control — for instance, illuminating a room from hundreds of miles away — but, at home, smartphone control is positively retrograde.

Want to turn on the bedroom light? Sure, just pick up your smartphone, enter the unlock code, hit your home screen, find the Hue app, and flick the virtual switch. Suddenly, the smart home has turned a one-push task into a five-click endeavor, leaving Philips in the amusing position of launching a new product, Tap, to effectively replicate the wall switches we always had.

Smart home technology should work with the existing interfaces of households objects, not try to change how we use them. Turning on a coffee machine via mobile using a smartphone may be cool, but the moment someone in the family turns off the pot using its own switch rather than the plug modules, the device ceases to be smart — and someone in the family is going to miss his morning cup of Joe.

No wonder Belkin, having released WeMo smart plugs, is now moving to solve this last mile by making actual integrated consumer devices like Crockpots and coffee machines.

If you think the smartphone as a universal remote control is where the problem gets solved, you should recalibrate. Once you have loaded up with your dedicated WeMo, Hue, Nest, Withings, August and other apps, simply living your life becomes a Groundhog Day of repetitive, siloed status changes. Just locking the door and turning off the lights to leave the house becomes more of a chore than it ever was. That’s not smart, it’s dumb.

What the smart home needs is not increased, smarter control but less, ambient control — the apps need to stay in the background and let their gadgets respond to the natural rhythms of human home life. Mobile apps should be the output panels, not the input interfaces, of the connected home.

Certainly, initiatives now exist that aim to provide a single, inter-connected user experience for the smart home future.

Samsung-acquired SmartThings does more than most to knit together the array of distinct radio standards that make home automation products as individual as they ever were in the heyday of protocols like X10 – but its user forums host many disgruntled customers.

Apple’s HomeKit aims to smooth pain points by grouping distinct gadgets into rooms. But much will be unclear until the system is fully released next year, and whether voice control via Siri is the right interface for a home remains to be seen.

What I mean by “ambient” interaction is making technology invisible — responding instead to occupants’ normal patterns, like their presence in a property or room.

Many technology makers agree, but their implementations belie their lack of empathy for how the mass-market consumers they crave really behave.

Take geolocation control, a mechanism that many devices now employ. While it may be efficient to have heating or lighting at home turn off when I leave my four walls with my GPS-enabled phone in my pocket, what good is that if walking out the door leaves my wife in the cold and dark?

Failing to account for multi-person households is one of the biggest ways in which technology makers will quickly let down enthusiastic consumers. This is easily solved by beginning to recognize more than a sole account holder using more than one phone.

Overloading with half-implemented technology for technology’s sake is the reality of Internet Of Things in 2014, the year the concept was due to woo mainstream consumers. If this year was not the year when the smart home finally went mainstream, technology makers will hope that 2015 will take that honor.

However, if the latest efforts to harmonize the experience do not succeed in simplifying implementation, the ambition may as well be put on ice for another 10 years.