Just Because It’s Connected, Doesn’t Mean It’s Smart

By Christopher Caen

How can the Internet of Things deliver the Jetsons' lifestyle?


Today’s connected home is a fabulous buffet of smart-home doorbells, garage-door openers, smart thermostats and brilliant voice-activated speakers—all listening eagerly for your next command. We have all been waiting for this day, when the lifestyle of the Jetsons becomes reality and we have complete control over our domain.

However, what we see today is the exact opposite of that vision. In reality, consumers are faced with a confusing smorgasbord of standards, technologies and platforms. At last count, according to the Internet of Things Institute, there are currently more than 400 IoT platforms in operation—or, as McKinsey & Company put it, “If there are 100 IoT platforms, then there is no platform, just aspirants.”

It’s a mess, and retailers have been put in the position of trying to explain to confused consumers how this all fits together. Target even tried to bespoke the whole experience by building its Open House in San Francisco to show how all these connected devices, well, connect. It’s safe to say it’s still a work-in-progress. So how are we going to get out of this alphabet soup of technology, standards and protocols?

Amazon and Google think they have the answer with their voice-powered speakers and assistants. Anyone who attended CES this year could not help but notice all the Google Assistant people running around in what resembled a “Where’s Waldo” get-up. The two companies are feverishly positioning themselves as the platform that will tie all this nonsense together once and for all.

I’m not buying it.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely a step in the right direction, but it does run afoul of a couple problems. At ReadWrite, we used to say that just because something has an app, that doesn’t mean it is connected—and just because it’s connected, that doesn’t mean it’s smart.

The first wave of IoT home devices went along the lines of apps equaling connectivity. But all those connected lightbulbs and smart thermostats did was to take the interface and move it to your phone. Want to turn on your smart light bulb? No worries, all you have to do is fire up your app and turn it on, which is dramatically better than turning it on with a wall switch, isn’t it?

The problem is this: what happens when you end up with a dozen smart IoT devices scattered around your house? Well, then you wind up with a dozen apps on your phone, and your smart-home experience consists of you whacking away at all these apps to make your connected home work. This experience winds up feeling much more fractured than connected.

But fear not, we now have our voice-enabled speakers here to save the day and connect everything. The issue now is, does this make everything “smart”? The answer to this is more ephemeral, in that the question is really, what do we expect from a smart home?

For me, it comes down to something pretty simple: I want a home that takes less of my time, not more. I want a home that is responsive, not reactive; I don’t want it to react only to my commands, but to react without my commands. So, if I were to use my smart front door lock to leave, then shouldn’t my smart light bulb be smart enough to know that it should turn off now that I am not there? I don’t want my smart home to sit there, grinding away on all those collective processors, waiting for me to tell it what to do. That just sounds like work.

Therein lies the problem with Alexa and Google Assistant—they are merely the interim step. Yes, they have made the interface problem go away, but with all the collective knowledge and cloud horsepower of Amazon and Google, they are still going to sit there waiting for you to tell them what to do.

We all want the Jetsons’ lifestyle. For that to happen, we need to let go of the idea of platforms and let all these smart devices be smart. Leave the house and the lights go off, the smart shades go up and the robotic vacuums head off to do their thing. In order for this to happen, all these companies need to let go of the idea of “owning” a platform and instead give us and our homes the ultimate power.

Will companies allow that to happen? Personally, I think yes, they eventually will. But we have some more rounds of evolution to go before that happens. Then again, the Jetsons’ lifestyle wasn’t built in a day either, so we all may have to wait just a tad more for our Rosie.

Christopher Caen is the head of marketing at ECOVACS Robotics. He is a known expert in the emerging market of the Internet of Things and the connected world. Recently, Christopher has led speaking panels alongside other industry thought leaders from Amazon, Intel, Samsung, Hitachi, Accenture and more, to discuss the direction and future potential of the IoT. Prior to working at ECOVACS, Christopher served as the editor-in-chief at ReadWrite, covering the business of the IoT, with a focus on data security, the IoT, transportation, health and smart cities.