The Smart Home’s Trojan Horse

Here is a German version of this article.

Trojan Horse
Despite at least a decade of buzz and anticipation, the smart home is still not a mass phenomenon. A few geeks and highly progressive regional clusters aside, the majority of people even in the most developed countries still has to manually push a button to turn on a lamp, still has to make guesses about the amount of milk left in the fridge, still has to open the entrance door with a physical key, still cannot turn off the heating remotely and still has no clue about their detailed energy consumption at any given moment.

It’s obvious that so far, people’s desire to realize these kind of use cases in their homes has not been very huge. At least not bigger than the assumed effort and costs to make it happen. In the cost vs benefit analysis, the smart home fails to look attractive to most. Yet.

Because something is happening. Despite the apparent lack of serious interest in the “traditional” concept of the smart home – household appliances connected to the Internet – people’s homes are getting smarter. A different type of device category is slowly connecting parts of people’s homes: Personal devices that are not primarily marketed as smart home gadgets but are built for the usage at home.

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The embodiment of this new category is Amazon’s smart box Echo. Echo primarily focuses on satisfying the broad kind of digital needs of people unrelated to the home such as playing music, shopping or checking the weather, but it also allows for an ever-increasing number of integrations with actual smart home products. People don’t buy an Echo to control their light bulbs, but they very likely end up using it for that very purpose as well.

Other types of devices that bring smartness to the home without relying on the philosophy of the smart home are for example new types of Wi-Fi routers with all kinds of added capabilities, stationary health/fitness products such as Withings’ smart scale, Amazon’s simple shopping buttons Dash or wireless, connected speaker and sound systems such as Sonos, Bose Soundtouch or Jawbone’s Jambox.

What these gadgets have in common is that they are portable, usually affordable (with the exception of some sound systems), don’t require complex installations, connect to the Internet (directly or via smartphones) and, most importantly, focus on satisfying users’ actual everyday needs of personal information gathering, shopping, communication, productivity and entertainment. Needs that are not limited to the home in any way, but that benefit from an optimization for the particular characteristics of the home environment.

These type of gadgets act as Trojan Horses for the smart home. Most people have shown a clear lack of passion for the widely and over many years heavily promoted philosophy of smart home. But if they are being offered a device that successfully caters to some of their existing digital needs AND adds smartness to their home, they don’t hate it. And over time, they might grow to love their smart home and start to explore what else is possible.

It’s still not clear how the smart home ecosystem will evolve, which player will manage to capture large parts of this market (although Amazon looks to be well on its path to victory) or whether decentralized or centralized approaches and open or closed systems will prevail. But what’s clear now, especially since the rise of Echo, is that in order to bring the smart home to the masses, you need to sell them something else first. Something they know they want.

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(Photo: Flickr/Maxim Trudolubov, CC BY 2.0)

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