Arguments over the true potential of the smart home

Christopher Mims took aim at the buzz surrounding the smart home recently in his Wall Street Journal article, that featured SmartThings CEO Alex Hawkinson’s very connected home. Mims argued that point product solutions which solve specific problems may work but the additional complexity of many home devices connected remained a major barrier to adoption.
Mims wrote:

It’s this task-driven approach to selling the idea of the smart home—offering a device or kit that solves a specific problem, rather than an all-in-one solution—that seems most likely to overcome the reluctance of most of us to add complexity to our personal sanctuaries. If you need to monitor a pet, elderly parent or home, why wouldn’t you add a straightforward system to do it?
But frankly, other than people who have very specific reasons to add automation to their homes, I have no idea why anyone would do it, even if the equipment were free. As countless reviewers have noted, including in this newspaper, even when smart-home technology works as advertised, the complexity it adds to everyday life outweighs any convenience it might provide.

Mims is both right and wrong. He’s right about the present. The smart home products that have succeeded, like the Nest Thermostat, have worked because they solve a very specific problem in an elegant way. The Nest thermostat lowers your power consumption, without you having to do or control anything. You install it. It learns from your behavior. At the end of the month, you’ve used 15 or 20 percent less power from your HVAC unit and saved cash.
Most current smart home products don’t have such a simple ROI. Most appeal to early adopters who get a kick out of saying “going to bed,” and seeing the thermostat turned down, the lights off, and the doors suddenly lock. That’s a cool thing. It’s not life changing.
But the future, I believe, will look different not necessarily because of a “killer app” but because of gradual changes around consumer behavior. I think people will want to monitor their home, particularly if they have children. Security is key. They’ll want to know if the babysitter has locked the door or if the pool around the fence is open. On the energy front, one smart energy app that say, handled HVAC, lighting and pool heating—some of the most energy intensive apps in the home—with ease and the ability to offer a simple and quantifiable energy return for consumers would have value.
To be sure, hubs and software must move towards seamless interoperability and ease of use so that home control is both intuitive and simple. It’ll only take one situation where a consumer can’t get his app to open his door for the game to be over. And the problem is less about whether consumers will take to the smart home. But will the mass fragmentation occurring among devices and software platforms make the smart home too difficult to integrate.
It’s this second question that is trickiest right now, and which led Apple’s Craig Federighi, to note during his WWDC presentation that Apple’s HomeKit was trying to “bring some rationality to the space.” Apple is itself somewhat concerned about fragmentation of devices, a situation that leads to someone looking at 15 devices in the home and wondering, “What’s the value of all this?” and how do I control it.
But if that fragmentation could be tamed, then the conversation changes from the value of the point device to the value of being able to visualize one’s home from security to thermostat. SmartThings is trying to solve that with a hub, which I believe is an evolutionary step, but a necessary one.
The endgame, however, is seamless interoperability among devices along with glitch free connectivity to a great meta app. Getting to that endpoint will be more difficult.