The Revival of Home Automation

Why the future is becoming less complex and more modular

How many big purchases have you made in your life?

Think about it. You might have bought a car, rented a house, or paid off school loans. Not that many. You don’t make these purchases very often - when was the last time you bought a car?

Now think about how you made those decisions. Were you careful? Did you make the purchase because you just wanted to try it out, or because you absolutely needed to?

Chance are, you did so because you needed to.

When you’re about to drop thousands on a new item, you want to make sure it’s something you have a genuine need for instead of something you’re simply curious about. You don’t spend money on a whim when you’re thinking about large purchases.

Right now, home automation doesn’t carry the risk of a large, complex purchase. But it certainly used to.

Classic Home Automation

Take a look at the above. This was an actual home automation system reviewed in 2013.

What is that and what does it do? You don’t know just by looking at it, and it’s so complex that you can’t tell if you need it or not. You don’t even know if you can install it yourself.

Other products available on the market back then, like this one, had loads of features and promised to automate every single aspect of your house. This one costs about $179 with recurring fees, and others were more expensive.

But why would you buy it if you can’t really tell what it does? And what if you didn’t want to automate every part of your living space?

(A fitting quote from the review: "The problem is that [it] just doesn't seem focused enough. it's a wide system, but not a particularly deep one.")

In 2013, home automation was a big, expensive purchase. Faced with big purchase decisions, buyers were hesitant to take a lot of risk. What if I install this thing in the entire house, and end up disliking the setup? It’ll take me days to uninstall! As a result, smart homes never took off in 2013.

So what would a more ideal version of home automation look like?

Modern Home Automation

The new wave of smart devices are a lot less confusing than the bundle of things we previously had. They look a lot more like this:

A lot better than the other picture, right?

A while back, somebody probably thought of the exact same complaints about home automation we thought of back in 2013. All the murmurs about how the products were sold in a giant bundle, packaged in a way that the average person couldn’t understand or install.

They probably came to the same conclusion we had: people were willing to buy things that are less expensive, even if those things didn’t control the entire house.

So they started building products like the Nest thermostat.

Sometimes, it’s better to have one refined, well-designed product rather than a sprawling system that does everything only half-decently. Modular devices captured that spirit.

These new devices didn’t try to sell the entire smart home all at once. Rather, they convinced you to buy because they’ll save you energy, had a lower price point, and delivered a better user experience than your current devices.

The system of the old days assumed that people wanted home automation as a big purchase, like buying a car. The items in our current era assumes that the buyer can be anybody.

Since then, individual smart devices boomed. Smartphones, which everyone has these days, were selected as the preferred 2016 version of a remote control. In the past, if a smoke detector went off, you might have had to physically grab a chair and press a button, or billow the smoke away using a paper plate. Now, you can open an app, and press a button.

A Case Study

Smart lighting is an interesting case study in the progression of modular devices. You might not be able to replace your smoke detector if you already have one installed, but you can easily replace a $3 light bulb.

People buy smart bulbs as personal gadgets and gifts. A big reason for doing so is in the inherently modular nature of lights: you buy as many bulbs as you’d like, and you’re never faced with the decision to replace all bulbs at once. In many cases, a first-time buyer can try out the lights before scaling up should they choose to expand.

A lot of early smart lighting systems first started out with a pack of lightbulbs: you bought a hub that connected the lights, and you bought two or three lights to justify the cost of the hub.

This wouldn’t be too bad, except the market price for these hub-based lighting systems started out at a hefty $200.

Really? That’s $200 to try out smart lighting! It’s fine if you know that smart lighting is truly worth $200 to you, but a little risky for those who are only marginally curious about what smart lights can do for them.

And that’s where modular products come in: an alternative wave of light bulbs that operate independent of a hub.

These devices, which includes emberlight, LIFX, and Misfit, function as well with a single bulb as they would with ten. Sans-hub, it’s entirely possible to buy a single bulb for $50 (or less!) to see how smart lighting work for you.

Those who are set on spending more on smart lighting get a new wave of options; those who are spending less get a new opportunity to experiment. Overall, a win for the smart lighting industry. Modularity lowers the price of entry, and draws in everyday people.

The Big Picture

The unbundling of devices is a boon to the average buyer. With a wealth of options, the average Joe in 2016 can try things out for a small cost before scaling up.

It’s also a boon for the Internet of Things industry, which people have talked about but haven’t quite materialized until now. In the coming years, a lot of former buyers will buy more smart products, since they’ve had the chance to try things out. A lot of new buyers will follow them in their wake.

A few years from now, we think all of these separate, fragmented devices will start to converge back together. Companies adept at both hardware and software development, like Apple or Google, will probably try to create “umbrella systems” linking all of these separate devices together.

(In Apple’s case, it’s already happening: this is what they’re trying to do with Homekit.)

At the current date, the software for these systems work, but isn’t extremely refined. We think they will be, though – if the trends we noted above do come to fruit, there’s about to be a lot more buyers in home automation than what we’ve seen before.

Maybe you’ll be one of those people. If you are, we’d love to help you get started.