Walking through the connected home portion of CES I was struck at the steps being made to make our home more efficient and responsive to human habitation. Light bulbs that not only connect to a user’s phone but also to centralized home automation hubs. Vents that regulate the air flow understanding when people are in the room and shuting off to save heat when people are not. There were also whole home automation systems built by the biggest names in home remodeling and DIY construction.
While the growth in this sector has been incredible and no doubt these automated and web connected devices will help us live with more resource efficiency, to this data scientist we are still missing a key component: a centralized communication protocol between platforms and new technologies, as well as guidelines for hardware.
As it currently stands the consumer buys into one of the technology platforms and is then locked into only that manufacturer’s devices. Initially, this has the feel of the well known BetaMax vs. VHS battle. That is: one platform will meet consumer needs better and faster and will subsequently rise above the competition. From the manufactures side this is a common path of technological adoption. And in the realm of consumer electronics this is fine, because when one device wins the consumer simply replaces their unit with the dominate platform. However, with devices in the connected home this poses a great problem. These devices often have to be installed professionally. This installation is often embedded within our housed behind walls, in ceilings and throughout the superstructure. With these deeply embedded devices, what happens when one platform is chosen at the market level over the other? Does the consumer have to gut their house and reinstall to now fit with the industry standard?
No doubt home value will be affected to the updated state of a home’s “smart” functions and installation of the newest components. What this poses is a problem for the consumer whether to enter into a cycle of constant deep installation upgrades to maintain value or to simply move forward with products fallen by the innovation wayside. Re-installation is wasteful from a resource and time perspective but could lift your home’s value. Moving forward with the non-dominate components would be more cost effective, but may run into technological lock-in problems down the line. Or if a company should go bankrupt, the consumer would be left holding a complex digital product no longer updated and with no supported replacement parts.
Companies also run a double risk of consumer alienation. For example, when Keurig released Keurig 2.0, requiring consumers to use only their specific brand of coffee pods, consumers revolted at being forced into a single coffee source. In this example, the coffee industry is well established, and let’s be real—people are not going to stop drinking coffee. However, in the nascent home automation consumer alienation is easily enough to crush a small start-up and could possibly set back consumer adoption.
A possible solution for this is to build a universal protocol for home automation. This would allow all companies to build their devices with a common communication platform enabling products from different manufacturers to be built into the same home and work in parallel. Additionally, as companies succeed or fail their components could be used ad hoc with new products, keeping homes up to date and supporting home asset value and resale potential. A solution also needs to be devised in hardware specifications to halt costly re-installations. Making the hardware quasi-standardized, while opening up competition in the experience design, would allow for cross-manufacture interfacing that would solidify the industry and further home control adoption. This has been successfully done across many industries: railroads, firearms and many other home building products. I am not advocating that each physical design needs to be the same, rather that these innovations have consistent design elements of key aspects to insure their continued usefulness well past installation.
It has never been an easy task to decide upon one cross-business data communication protocol, but it is something that needs to be addressed not only to provide the consumer a better product and experience, but to insure growth and efficacy in the connected home vertical.