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Smart Homes

Back in 1980 when I still lived in the Netherlands I worked with the Dutch futurist Griet Titulaer (an astronomer by trade) in building ‘The Home of the Future’. I would say that at that stage it was more built around innovative interior design with automation features. Home entertainment also played a key role in it.

At that stage these concepts had nowhere near the amount of technology that we are seeing in the homes of the future that we envisage today, but in essence lots of the elements we are still talking about were present then as well. Most of you will have seen throughout your careers several versions of these ‘smart homes’.

Yet it is rather puzzling that now, 30 years later, our homes are not much smarter than those of the 1980s. Yes, we have more gadgets and devices but no integrated holistic smart home. Given this, I can’t see that the version we now have in mind regarding the design for the smart home of 2016 will see a sudden rapid deployment.

While smart homes certainly attract our attention and in general are viewed in a positive way by most people, a range of issues come into play, not the least of which is the need for an expensive retrofit of the current home in order to make it a true smart home.

A key element that wasn’t included in the home of the future of the 1980s and is now centre-stage is the ‘green house’ with net-zero energy.

Between the 1980s and the 00s  the talk was all about integrating entertainment and communications elements – most of the time a male thing to do – and those who embarked on it quickly found out how difficult this actually is; and in many cases the female side of the household was not impressed with the complexity of operating these ‘smarts’.

But even within these entertainment elements it is surprising to see how little has changed in hi-fi and TV entertainment. Instead of integration we now have piles of boxes sitting next to the TV.

Laptops, smartphones and tablets have become available since that time, but these additions didn’t turn the house into a smart home.

At the top end of town we do see that business buildings are indeed becoming smarter, especially around energy-saving and environmental features, as well as integrated communications, security and so on; the residential market, however, is still running behind in these developments.

Rather than waiting for the ‘killer app’ that will make the home smarter it looks like it will be a continuation of the past 30 years, and developments towards a smart home will continue to muddle along in the same way.

Also, rather than a holistic solution, developments will still largely be silo-driven, with a range of industries involved:

  • Design and construction industry
  • Electricity, water and other utilities
  • Telecoms and IT companies
  • Hardware suppliers (entertainment, communications, incl. Google, Apple, etc)
  • Security companies

All of these have a strong presence in the home market and all have smart home products and services; however because of the siloed structure there is no holistic approach to the smart home concept – that requires collaboration and interconnection.

We have seen utilities developing smart meters and smart energy gateways but in general they are again stand-alone and low tech rather than interconnected and more hi-tech and very limited in what they can do. Telcos have dabbled in this market as well, mainly through services, but in general the cost of these services has been prohibitive. Google Nest has designed perhaps one of the slickest devices around its thermostat, and while new developments have not been forthcoming since its takeover by Google there are still high expectations around both Google and Apple. Security companies have also upped their effort in this space, but again around a highly siloed approach.

This brings me to the crunch of smart homes. In order to break through this process of muddling on a totally new business model is essential – one that will cut through the abovementioned silos and brings a holistic approach to the smart home concept.

Beyond some niche market concepts, pilots and research projects, we haven’t seen anything on a scale that would see this market finally taking off on a mass market level. Without much better industry collaboration, the only other breakthrough will require a large company with the right concept and strategy, as well as with a holistic range of products and services to seriously disrupt the market.

Nothing that’s going to happen any time soon.

Paul Budde