Why is the dream of the 'Connected Home' so disjointed?

Mention the term 'connected home' or 'smart house', and you conjure up images of automated gadgets and robots at your beck and call – similar to the lifestyle enjoyed by The Jetsons. The space age family commuted in a flying car and lived in a futuristic utopia where seamless connectivity was, well - seamless! Turn back the clock to the present day and the concept of the connected home has not exactly taken off. We are far from the Jetsons.

One of the most recent high-profile disappointments has been Google’s acquisition of Nest. The tech behemoth spent over $3 billion (£2bn) acquiring the intelligent thermostat. Yet, according to some, Nest only generated about $340 million (£240m) in sales in 2015 – well below expectations. Hardly surprising then that a survey conducted this year by PwC found that 72 per cent of consumers are unlikely to introduce smart home technology in the next two to five years.

The numbers keep on coming

Many forecasters predicted that there would be tens of millions of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and that the connected home market would be worth billions of dollars by now. Clearly the crystal ball used by some of those futurologists needed a good dusting – or even a good connection – because those predictions have fallen short of expectations. Why? There are a number of reasons.

Cost

It is great that a fridge can scan the food inside and let you know when perishables are going bad. But, would you spend $5,000 (£3,500) for that privilege? Probably not. Anyone for a $1,000 (£700) ‘robotic’ vacuum cleaner that can’t even travel up a flight of stairs? That’s a problem blighting the connected home. A US study found that 46 per cent of consumers felt connected home devices were just too expensive.

Connection confusion

Smart home device manufactures have varying control panels, platforms gateways, and apps to connect their products. Add to this the conundrum of different protocols – with an assortment of acronyms such as Z-Wave, ZigBee, IEEE 802.15.4, and 6LoWPAN – which sometimes fail to interconnect with each other. All this adds to consumer confusion.

Nothing new

Most connected home devices have not really championed newer use cases that consumers would find valuable. Yes, the connected fridge can warn you about milk running low. But what if it could intelligently recommend recipes based on the food inside the fridge, while being aware of special dietary requirements? Connected home needs to think outside the (ice)box.

Show me the money

Compared to the consumer market, IoT within the enterprise – referred to as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) – has thrived, in part due to lower priced sensors and ubiquitous Internet connectivity. A range of connected devices and systems have helped businesses streamline logistics, boost productivity and importantly, make valuable cost savings. And therein lies the difference.

The connected home certainly captured the imagination of consumers. Most of the devices are certainly fun to have around a house, but they are not a necessity. For businesses, IIoT is a necessity as it delivers value and it empowers them. There are plenty of examples. Royal Dutch Shell uses special sensors to monitor vast pipelines so engineers can monitor bottlenecks from anywhere in the world. Caterpillar uses enhanced telematics to optimise logistics in construction sites. B. United breweries utilise GPS-based sensors to monitor the quality of its beers and ciders being flown globally.

The data gleaned from connected sensors will be used by business to make even more savings and drive even greater efficiency. Research has found that over 70 per cent of enterprises are investing more than 20 per cent of their technology budgets in big data analytics. IIoT is helping businesses to continuously innovate and make a positive impact on the bottom line.

Back to the connected home

So, what lessons can smart home technology learn from IIoT? Unsurprisingly, it is addressing some of the problems afflicting the mass market take up of smart home. Let’s begin.

Interoperability

OEMs must stop developing proprietary frameworks that fail to operate and talk to devices from other manufacturers or operating systems. One early adopter of connected home technology highlighted how a firmware crash on one device had a domino effect and rendered the other technologies in the house useless.

OEMs and developers must take interconnectivity more seriously. On an integration level, IFTT – which stands for If This, Then That – has shown how over 100 disparate online services can be combined to make life easy. OEMs and developers can take a leaf out of this playbook to deliver simplicity.

Added value

To gain mass market adoption of smart home technology, consumers need gadgets that do more than just switch on a light bulb or turn on the heating. Connected home technology needs to deliver real value. To do this, developers can harness the data from connected home devices to find new use cases so that consumers can appreciate the value of investing in such technology. Put simply, just as enterprises see the usefulness in IIoT – consumers must see connected devices as a necessity to boost savings in the household.

Enter Google

The battle for the connected home might be about to get interesting. Currently, consumers wanting a ‘smarter’ home can purchase the Amazon Echo, a speaker that uses a cloud-based Artificial Intelligence assistant, known as Alexa, to answer questions, play music and control some home automation devices. Not to be outdone Google is launching a similar product, Google Home, in late 2016. Amazon has not released sales figures for the Echo and they tend to vary depending on the source. Some claim it to be less than 1 million since its launch in 2014 and others estimate it to be around 3 million.

Why is Google Home noteworthy? For the simple reason that the search giant has a lot more data and access to multiple online services than Amazon. That gives Google Home an edge. This also enables developers to tap into this data stream to innovate new use cases and build stronger, lucrative business models.

In terms of cost, Google usually tends to price products cheaper than its competitors. Its media streaming product Chromecast – known now as Googlecast – is cheaper than Amazon’s Fire TV Stick and Roku’s Streaming Stick. Google has sold well over 20 million of their streaming devices. Impressive. TechRadar expects Google Home to be cheaper than the Amazon Echo which retails at around $180 (£125). If Google Home is affordable and secures the same levels of success as the Googlecast – the connected home could soon go mainstream.

Home, sweet connected home

Last but not least, it is rumoured that Apple is also about to enter the connected home market with a Siri-based Artificial Intelligence speaker. All this goes to show the power of voice as an interface with smart integration to power everything that is connected. Thanks to innovation from the darlings of Silicon Valley - Amazon, Google and Apple – it might sound clichéd, but the possibilities are endless for developers and OEMs of connected home devices. IIoT might not be as sexy or even glitzy as the gadgets in the connected home. Yet, IIoT holds valuable lessons for developers and OEMs hoping to deliver a piece of the Jetsons' lifestyle to consumers. Finally, the connected home might get lift off.

Sanil Pillai is the Director of Infostretch Labs.