If you’ve read this column in the past, you know I follow the smart home space very closely. As designers, we’re going to need to start specifying and recommending smart home products very soon.
Look down at your iPhone. See that app called “Home?” That app is supposed to allow you to control all of your smart home devices. There are a lot of iPhones out there. Your customers are going to start asking how to control their kitchens using that app very soon. More on that in a minute.
SMART HOME PRODUCTS
First, let’s talk about some of the individual smart home products. There are so many more on the market today than there were one, two and three years ago. Walk into your local Best Buy, Sears, Lowes or Home Depot and you’ll see all kinds of different products.
Locks: There are several ways you can lock your house “smartly.” You can replace your door lock entirely with a lockset that can be operated by your smartphone. There are also deadbolt locks, and even sets that go over your existing door locks.
Cameras: There are a lot of security cameras you can add to your home now as well. Products like the Arlo camera let you add battery-operated cameras outside your home, along with Nest and Ring that have a mixture of both inside and outside units.
Thermostats: There are a number of smart thermostats on the market right now, including offerings from Nest, Honeywell and Ecobee, to name a few. These thermostats let you control the temperature of your home when you’re not there. When you’re home, they intelligently cycle your HVAC system to not only keep you comfortable, but also save on your utility bills.
There are many more products than the ones I just mentioned. But the point here is that these are all individual products. When you get a good one, the experience of that individual product is great. It installs easily, the app works well and it genuinely makes your life better/easier/safer in some way.
As has been the story with most of these gadgets for years, though, even when one delivers an excellent experience, it’s not tied to your other gadgets. But why shouldn’t my lock turn my lights off when I’m away? Why shouldn’t my security camera randomly turn on the lights in my house when the thermostat knows I’m away to ward off criminals?
BUILDING AN ‘ECOSYSTEM’
In the tech world, linking things to make them work well together is called an “ecosystem.” Several large companies have made bets on being the default ecosystem for the smart home. Over the past few months, many of them have really stepped up their game, and it’s worth seeing what’s new.
Let’s talk Apple first. A few years ago, Apple came out with “HomeKit.” This allows makers of smart home products to integrate with that “Home” app that’s on your phone screen. The big idea was that you could say “Hey Siri, goodnight!” and your iPhone would lock your doors, turn off the lights and turn down the heat.
Adoption was slow as Apple required that smart home product makers place a proprietary chip in each device they made. Turns out manufacturers don’t like adding cost and complexity. Apple decided to remove that requirement. Since then, more and more HomeKit devices have been added, and faster than ever before.
Because of the iPhone’s massive user base, I wouldn’t underestimate the power of an app that’s on every single iPhone screen. I’m sure many of your customers have seen it and wondered what they could do with it.
A couple of years ago, Amazon came out with the “Echo” smart speaker. This is a black cylindrical speaker you can place in your kitchen. You can talk to it and ask it to play music, order food or get recipes. What it also does is serve as a hub for your smart home. In my experience, the Echo’s simple-to-use voice commands work well for people who don’t have the app, or who are visitors in your home. I can say, “Alexa, turn off the lights” before bed, and all of my lights in my house will turn off.
Because this thing is so easy to use, it’s very quickly become a hub for the smart home. Amazon’s open approach to smart homes allows just about anyone to tap into the Echo for voice control. The Echo has become so popular that there are many different versions of it now. You can get ones with touch screens that offer video chat, and even little tiny ones that you can put in the bedroom or bathroom. Amazon is betting really big on being the hub of your smart home.
Google also has a play here as well. It offers a smart home speaker that’s similar to the Echo. Google also offers “Assistant,” a voice-controlled, artificially intelligent computer that you can command to do many of the same things that the Echo does. Since it’s powered by Google, it’s pretty darn smart. I’m always surprised how well it can answer detailed questions. If you have an Android phone, you can likely access it already, and if you have an iPhone, download the Google app and try talking to the Assistant.
Some of the hardware players are trying to get in on the ecosystem game, too. Nest and Ring both offer complete systems and, in some cases, methods to tie other hardware products into their platforms.
So who’s going to win? In short: I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s not a zero sum game. I predict that, in the very near future, there will be a couple of top tier smart home hubs that will drive development of future smart home products.
Apple, because of its market dominance, will always have a presence. Apple has a habit of making “walled gardens” out of its eco systems. If you have an iPhone and a Mac, it’s very hard to switch to a different platform because they have you a bit locked in.
Amazon’s approach is wide open. They let anyone plug into their platform and they have a really good voice assistant that does not require the user to have an expensive iPhone. Their Echo speaker is a bit like an appliance that you put in your phone, so that anyone in the home can interact with it.
Google is definitely the smartest of the bunch here, but they’re late to the game as well, with Amazon being far ahead on voice assistant development.
Here is what I do know: Your customers are going to want smart devices in their homes very soon. As designers, it’s time to start learning. Go download the Google app. Start talking to Siri and looking into the Apple Home app. Pick up an Echo for your house or showroom and try it out (it’s great for playing music!).
Head down to the store and pick up a smart lock, and put a security camera or a thermostat in your showroom. Start using this stuff!
Do you need to start designing spaces around this stuff now? Probably not just yet (but soon!). But you need to be aware of how this ecosystem is developing. As designers, we’re supposed to guide our customers toward great solutions and away from bad ones. Even if your experience with these products is that they’re not ready for mainstream just yet, as a designer, only hands-on experience will truly prepare you to give that answer. ▪