It’s a new year, and as we’ve been thinking about what we’ll be covering on the blog this year, my mind naturally turned to smart home tech. 2017 was a big year for the smart home, with Google coming on the scene and quickly turning into a key player, an explosion in Philips Hue adoption, and more. I feel like an increasing number of my friends are getting into the game with smart lights, thermostats, and voice assistants.
But I don’t think we’ve reached “peak smart home” by any means. So what’s next? I decided to take a stab at what I think we can expect to see this year.
Alexa vs. Google Assistant: The Showdown
This time last year, Google had been in the smart speaker game for all of a month. But by building on their existing Google Assistant and bringing it into the home with the Google Home and eventually the Google Home Mini, Google has quickly become a major contender in the space. I wrote an article about the similarities and differences between Alexa and the Google Assistant last August, but the short version is that both systems are good at basic tasks while having plenty of room for improvement. I’ve personally invested more in Alexa, but I recently picked up a Google Home Mini to better compare that side of things. And so far, it’s seeming to be a close race between the two.
I think we’re going to see a lot of growth in Alexa and Google Assistant’s capabilities this year. Amazon and Google are in a race to match each others’ features and add new capability to give their platform any small edge against the other. Of course, this is a win for consumers, but I have to admit that it makes my job hard–it’s tough to figure out what to recommend!
In 2018, I’m hoping we’ll see Alexa and Google Assistant grow in functionality, but take unique approaches to how they interact with the user. It’s cool getting new features, but right now I feel like it’s a coin flip between the two. Just like a real assistant, it’s entirely possible that your personality and needs might be better suited to one assistant over another. Feature lists are important, but I’d like to see Amazon and Google think about how the user interacts with the voice assistant and make changes to improve that. It’d be neat if we had the option to choose our voice assistant based on which one suits our lifestyle best.
Smart Lights: Lower Price, More Options
I’ve seen a lot of growth in smart lighting over the last year. Right now, Philips Hue is by far the biggest winner among people I know, with several of my friends getting starter kits recently thanks to a few good sales. Smart bulbs like Hue are easy to install and configure, but I don’t think they’re a perfect smart lighting offering yet. They’re expensive even when on sale, and it’s necessary to dig through a long list of third-party apps if you want to automate the lights beyond basic functions.
I’m not sure what the solution is here, but I’d like to see some progress in this area. One option is smart switches, which require you to turn off a breaker and swap out a receptacle in your wall, but give you the ability to automate the existing lights in your home without replacing bulbs. This could theoretically be cheaper than Hue bulbs, especially if you have light fixtures with a lot of bulbs. But right now, smart switches are overly expensive and limit you to a very small set of decor options. The only affordable option currently is to use Z-Wave switches that require a separate hub and app, which isn’t simple enough for wide adoption.
The alternative is for smart bulbs like Hue to come down in price. I see this as a more likely scenario, and it’s one that is easier for customers to install and use. We’ve seen aggressive sales on Hue bulbs lately, so maybe there is hope here. But Philips will need to do more than just lower the price of their Hue bulbs. They need to continue to innovate on the user experience in their app and provide more automation options to make it easier for a user to set up the lights the way they want.
Automation For All
Speaking of automation, have you noticed that it’s relatively nonexistent right now? You’ve probably heard smart home tech referred to as “home automation”, but the fact is that most of us aren’t actually automating very much right now. You might have a Hue motion sensor set up so your lights can come on when you walk in the room, or you might have your thermostat turn the AC on when you get home from work, but automating anything beyond that is no easy task.
Let’s say you want to turn your living room lights on when the security camera at your front door detects motion, but only if it’s dark outside and only if no one is home. It’d be hard to configure that automation with today’s smart home apps. You can generally find a way to set up simple automations that have one trigger and one action, such as the motion sensor example I mentioned. But if you want to do something more complex that involves multiple products from different vendors, you’re going to have a hard time.
There are ways to do this now. If you’re willing to get your hands dirty, you can get a home automation server running with Samsung SmartThings or the open-source HomeAssistant and automate to your heart’s content. But this isn’t very approachable for most people. I own a SmartThings hub, but haven’t set up any automations with it because I haven’t had time to dig into all of the options and learn how to write automation rules. And I shouldn’t have to. The companies providing these products should be working to make it easier for us to automate them.
2018: A Year Of Refinement?
I feel like 2017 was the year smart home tech took off. We saw a huge explosion in the number of products available, and it seems to me that manufacturers have released products that fit into the obvious categories of smart home tech. We have smart lights, smart thermostats, and smart TV remotes. We have voice assistants that let us control all of these devices with spoken commands, like something from a sci-fi movie. The tech has come pretty far.
But I’m hoping that 2018 will be the year that everything gets more refined. Now that we have voice assistant technology that can generally understand what we’re saying, we need the voice assistant to support the features we want, and to interact with us in a more natural way. We’ve proven that smart lights can be cool, but we need an app that lets us automate them more easily, and we need to be able to buy them at an affordable price. In general, we need to see improvements in usability.
I think it’s going to be an exciting year for smart home tech, and I don’t think the pace of innovation is slowing down at all. This is going to be a major focus for our blog this year, and I’m looking forward to covering more about smart home tech in the coming months. Hopefully I’ll get to write about some of these things as actual news stories rather than just hopes for the future. We’ll have to wait and see.