If you enjoy reading tech journalism or watching HGTV, you probably know there’s a bit of a renaissance and a backlash occurring at the same time in the smart home/IoT (internet of things) world right now. The renaissance is coming from a flood of interesting products entering the market at a price that is finally affordable for most families. The backlash is coming from poorly supported products that are expensive, cumbersome, and don’t like to place nice with others.
For that reason, I sense a general hesitance from friends and family who are interested in smart home technology, but are terrified to actually add it to their homes. Is building a smart home in 2016 a dumb thing to do? Let’s dig into some of the myths and realities.
Despite what the news has told you, you probably don’t have to worry about someone hacking into your house. There are some exceptions to this rule, though.
As you shop around for products, look for established companies that list security as one of their top bullet points, especially for products like door locks and home security cameras. Companies like Canary have some pretty fantastic bank-grade encryption in place to keep people from watching your underwear dance marathons, but many of the cheapo alternative products on the market do not (especially in categories like baby monitors).
Be sure to keep a WPA2-secured wireless network at home with limited guest access, and use a different strongly-built password for each of the smart services you use. Also be sure to keep your software and firmware up-to-date on all of your devices. If you hear of a “security breach” in the news, change your password the next time you login. Those simple rules of thumb will keep your house protected from 99.9% of the realistic security threats you’re likely to encounter.
Pimping out your home with the latest gadgets can certainly be expensive, but if you start small and purchase wisely, you might be surprised by how affordable it can be. What may start as an impulse purchase here and there will likely evolve into a fun little hobby for you and your family.
Many families will start with something small… maybe a smart light switch or bulbs for some basic automation or a thermostat to try to live more green. Maybe it even starts with a gee-whiz gadget like the Amazon Echo or a step toward securing your home with a camera like the Canary. Functionality that used to cost thousands is now available for $50-200 bucks on average, coming in at a reasonable price point that makes sense even for budget-minded consumers.
To reverse the argument, many of these gadgets can actually save you money, or even save your house in the event of an emergency. Smart devices may come at a premium when compared to the average “dumb” alternatives, but they’ll likely pay for themselves through either savings or convenience.
This is a big one. The most common argument I hear is “I already feel like I need to replace my phone every year; why would I want to do that with my whole house?!” I can understand the logic, but as long as your stick with the established players/protocols, you’ll be pretty safe in the long run.
My general rule of thumb for novices is to never purchase something at the “crowdfunding” or “announcement” stage, even from big names like Google and Apple. As a citizen of the internet, you probably realize by now that crowdfunded hardware generally has an abysmal success rate, which is the last thing most hard working families want to invest in. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re safe with the big players either; Google has talked up a number of projects and protocols in recent years that have gone nowhere, and Apple’s HomeKit program is only now gaining steam and support after being announced several fall’s ago.
It’s fun to take a gamble and be an extreme-early-adopter, but you’ll be a lot safer if you invest in products with a proven track record and maybe on a second or third revision of their hardware. Think of products like the Nest thermostats, Leviton light switches, and the Philips HUE bulbs. Products like that have been sufficiently tested by the marketplace and have marketshare that translates to great support.
As a fallback, make sure that every smart home device you purchase works just as well as a “dumb” device. I doubt my Schlage Connect locks will ever lose support, but if they do, they’re still fantastic deadbolts for my doors. If you can’t turn on the lights or change the temperature when a start-up goes out of business, your house will quickly turn into a world of hurt.
Unstable Start-ups and Platforms
Along the same lines, I think there’s a lot of sensationalist fear going around right now about smart home products and companies with potentially short life spans. Google’s recent shuttering of the Revolv smart home hub comes to mind.
I think those fears are sensationalist, because if you buy the right products, most can function with a number of apps and services even as supporting apps and even their parent companies exit the marketplace. A z-wave light switch should continue to function just fine with other hubs even if its parent company decides to quit supporting their in-house app. I LOVE Wink‘s ever-improving hub and app, but should their financial woes ever bring them down completely, it should be painless to jump over to a competing service like SmartThings.
Of all the concerns listed here, this is probably the most valid to the average consumer. Tech-savvy consumers tend to be fiercely loyal to their favorite companies, but buying platform-specific smart gadgets probably isn’t the best idea in a world where technology changes faster than you can read this blog post.
A great example right now is Apple’s HomeKit initiative. There are many products hitting the market this fall that are exclusively designed for HomeKit, and that’s great if you’re an Apple house (as we generally are). However, if you organize all of your smart home efforts around Apple-exclusive controls, then you’ll run into problems if you jump over to Android for a season, or want to integrate with your smart TV, Echo, or other new gadget. Again, I think the safest bet right now is to purchase products that play nice with every platform. Offering compatibility with projects like HomeKit is fantastic as long as they can be controlled by other interfaces as well.
Conclusion: Don’t Be Afraid to Upgrade
Honestly, I think 2016 is a fantastic time to upgrade some of the tech in your family’s home. Do a little research online before you purchase, and then go ahead and dip your toe into the home-automation waters. I think you’ll be blown away by the tangible difference a few little little gadgets can make in your daily life; the only thing to fear is that your geeky new hobby might turn into a full-fledged addiction.