Why Can’t My Dishwasher Program My TV? The Problems With Smart Homes

717
Illustration: © IoT For All

Smart buildings and smart homes can bring many advantages. Among them are the possibilities for energy savings, increased security, greater convenience and better quality of life. According to a report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, “A smart building with integrated systems can realize 30–50% savings in existing buildings that are otherwise inefficient.”

However, there are issues with smart homes that are slowing their widespread rollout. Like many IoT developments, reality has yet to live up to the hype.

1. Security Issues

Connected technology can improve a building’s security. Connected cameras allow you to see who you’re buzzing into your building. Smart door locks enable you to set time-limits for key codes that are deleted automatically once that period has expired. However, connected technology can also open up new security threats.

Unfortunately, many IoT devices are far from secure. They often arrive with myriad security issues baked-in. Devices lack the capacity to support adequate security such as anti-malware or firewalls. They cannot accept patches or updates, and they may have easily guessable preset passwords.

Even if your smart locks have the high security you would expect, they could be made vulnerable by other devices connected to the network, such as connected baby monitors, smart fridges or washing machines. Protecting the IoT network is a good solution. However, it’s important that IoT manufacturers take a more proactive approach to create secure products.

Securing a large commercial IoT deployment is one thing but it’s a bit much to expect average consumers to be responsible for ensuring the security of all their smart home devices.

2. Privacy Issues

The term “smart home” is so plagued by privacy concerns in the eyes of the public that Google has moved away from calling it that. They refer to it as a “helpful home” with hopes of shedding the negative associations and privacy concerns that have dogged tech firms over the past few years.

Recently, owners of smart home speakers were shocked to learn that recordings from these speakers were being listened to by employees of the device manufacturers. Companies were quick to assure their customers that the recordings were only being used for training purposes and that it was only a small percentage of recordings. Regardless of the details, the idea of being spied on in their own home unnerved people.

The truth is just that, for many people, the idea of a voice-controlled smart home is a little too close to ‘A Space Odyssey’s’ Hal 9000 for comfort. Blame sci-fi if you want, but our mistrust of all-knowing technology runs too deep to allow it full-scale into our homes just yet. Not without better assurances from tech companies that they’re not spying on us and selling our data to third parties.

3. Obsolescence

We’re used to our smartphones, tablets and computers only lasting a few years before they break or their operating systems are no longer supported. We wouldn’t expect to still be receiving security and OS updates for a ten-year-old smartphone. But what about our ovens, fridges, smoke alarms and door locks? The average life expectancy of these types of household appliances could be closer to 15 years for old fashioned ‘dumb’ devices.

Most of us wouldn’t want to shell out for a new washing machine or oven every two or three years. So, just how long is the OS going to be supported on your fancy new smart fridge? How long has the company you’re buying it from been around? Will they last more than another few years in business before folding and leaving you with an expensive security liability in your kitchen?

The manufacturer of one of the most widely-recommended smart home hubs, Wink, appears to be experiencing these types of difficulties. This leaves many people wondering how long they’ll be able to keep using their smart home ecosystem before problems occur and there’s no support available.

4. Managing Different Standards

Try and change the channel on your Apple TV with your Samsung smartphone. It will come as no surprise that it’s not simple (and sometimes not even possible) to interconnect different devices from competing brands. Most smart home devices operate within brand silos.

According to 43% of participants in Jabil’s 2018 Connected Home and Building Technology Trends survey, the lack of data communication and application standards was one of their biggest challenges.

While there are some of us who are devoted to a particular brand and wouldn’t dream of buying a technological appliance from anyone else, for most of us our homes are a hodgepodge of different devices running on different systems.

If we’re going to see widespread uptake of smart home devices, we need smart home communication standards. Users want a plug-and-play system, not to spend hours fiddling around to get their devices to talk to each other.

Remember your frustration at the error message, ‘Printer not found’ as you looked at the printer sitting on the desk right next to your computer? Now multiply that by every potential smart device in your home. We need smart home communication standards.

5. It’s Not Big and It’s Not Clever

Many smart devices today function as little more than a glorified remote control. You can adjust your thermostat from your mobile phone or check if you turned the lights off while you’re at work. These functions are fine but at the end of the day, they aren’t revolutionary.

To achieve mass uptake smart homes will need to address the issues that are real pain points for people. The introduction of home appliances such as the washing machine was revolutionary because they freed people from hours of time-consuming tasks. We’ve yet to see anything as useful come from smart home devices.

Sure, it’s nice to be able to put your heat on as you walk home from work and arrive at a toasty home, but it’s not life-changing. When we consider the cost and hassle of installing smart home devices they rarely seem worth the payoff.

For the average consumer, the time or energy saved from a smart lightbulb or a smart fridge is simply not worth the cost and effort to install them. Show me a clothes folding machine or something that will collect the empty mugs my flatmate leaves scattered around the living room and I am there. There’s a reason that Roombas are so popular. They provide a solution to a genuine pain point for consumers (dust bunnies).

If we want to move forward into a future of genuinely smart homes then smart home device manufacturers need to up their game. They need to think bigger and work collectively to develop common connectivity standards so their devices can work seamlessly together. They need to improve their security. They need to make their products as easy to install and use as possible and ensure that any costs (in terms of time or money) are truly offset by the benefits their product brings.