How New Connectivity Standards Might — Or Might Not — Solve Innate Smart Home Challenges

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Connectivity Standards

In 2008, I was a newly-minted project manager charged with building out case studies for a large Seattle-based technology company.

One of them was about a local engineer who was using the company’s technology to build his own personal smart home. I was taken aback by his ingenuity, as this was the first time I’d heard of a “smart home,” and it got me thinking about how that could work.

My very first thought was: how long until everyone has one?

Forgive me for my blind and, in hindsight, foolish enthusiasm as we sit in the year 2022 and I still don’t have a high degree of confidence that my ‘smart lock’ won’t run out of batteries and lock me out of my own house.

I still can’t get smart homes out of my head. My questions about them have changed, though. Now I wonder: how long have people been thinking about the smart home — and what smart home problems have we actually managed to solve so far?

Well, a quick search led me to a 2003 case study “Living Inside a Smart Home.” The author concludes that for any home to be considered “smart,” it would need to have four types of personalization at its core:

  • Personalization of the interface, which helps users navigate, set up, and operate connected devices with relative ease
  • Personalization by profile, which denotes experiences that are specific to the individual
  • Personalization by activity, which includes notifying users about the diminishing grocery and detergent supplies, unpaid bills, or unusual energy consumption patterns
  • Personalization by location in the home, which refers to the emergence of new connected home form factors all throughout the household

Of course, this author didn’t have the benefit of knowing how technology would evolve in the following 20 years and whether high-tech companies would successfully navigate these smart home challenges.

But, I have hindsight on my side, and so I decided to find out what’s happened in the industry since then…

Smart Home Challenges: Where We Are Now

Numerous challenges still face the world of smart home development.

This article from Google cites comprehensive research in APAC showing why consumers aren’t excited about smart homes, including uncertainty around which devices to purchase and how to use them, the need for seamless integration and an easy (do-it-for-me) experience, and smart home privacy and safety concerns (more on this later).

This list resonates on a personal level.

As I was discussing this article with my dad over lunch, I asked him what his concerns are when he thinks of the “smart home.” He mentioned that he had purchased a Nest thermostat a while back. He wants to know if he’d be able to mix and match his Google-owned Nest with other smart home capabilities, should he decide he wants them, or if he’d have to become an entirely “Google house” or an entirely “Amazon house.”

There are just so many unknowns — the average person is simply in the dark as to what the smart home will look like in five, ten, or (certainly) twenty years. Unless technology companies unanimously follow smart home development and implementation best practices, the average consumer will continue to be reticent to go all-in on a connected home solution, even if it works!

For many years now, companies have vied for customer love for their particular family of products and experiences — look no further than the Apple brand to see what I mean.

“Winning the entire customer at all costs” could very well be the tagline of any of the main competitors, but in a space as complicated as home automation, this can lead to some less-than-desirable outcomes.

The lack of smart home interoperability standards, growing smart home security issues, and IoT startups that go belly up, leaving their products unpatched — all of this could undermine the whole connected home concept.

Will companies ever realize that making the smart home functional is a better goal, one that will turn customer frustration into satisfaction? After all, there’s enough money in the smart home sector ($314B USD TAM by 2027) to make all the players happy.

Source: mordorintelligence.com

It appears they’re now on the right track — but allow me to explain.

How ‘Matter’ and ‘Thread’ Will Change the Smart Home as We Know It

While the current smart home landscape is characterized by challenges, disappointment, and unfulfilled promises, there is hope. To understand why, it’s important to have a basic grasp of a couple of critical concepts on the road to a working smart home: Matter and Thread.

What Is Matter — And Why Does It Matter for Smart Home Companies?

Matter is a smart home interoperability standard that sits on the application layer and allows products manufactured by different companies to speak a common language, removing the need for devices to be in the same proprietary solution to work well together.

This is a game-changer, as Matter-enabled products will soon be ubiquitous, enabling consumers to pick individual products they prefer without artificial constraints, while also ensuring smart home device makers can confidently assume their device will work well within the customer’s ecosystem.

Source: vaneck.com

All of the big technology companies – Apple, Google, Amazon, etc. – have signed on to the Matter framework, agreeing in principle to release Matter-enabled smart home products moving forward.

Sounds amazing, right? What’s less known is that the network model itself is also improving, which will make Matter all that more effective.

What is Thread, and How Will It Take the Smart Home Concept to the Next Level?

Thread is a first-class smart home wireless network with a mesh framework that allows for data to flow to all products directly, regardless of power, making it ideal for connected homes, which will invariably have a certain amount of battery- and low-powered devices.

Because of the mesh infrastructure connected to every product, it works better than Wi-Fi in areas of the house where the network may be marginal or cost prohibitive to improve.

It’s also superior to other mesh networks (such as Zigbee deployments), because it gives each device an IP address and allows for direct communication without any translation required to and from the device.

While Matter-enabled products will be able to work via any network type, improvements driven by Thread will make those connections much more robust and reliable. And this might turn out to be a silver-bullet solution to numerous smart home technology problems.

The current launch date for the Matter initiative (which has been pushed back several times) is late 2022. Once Matter is out, there will inevitably be an uneven rollout, as companies slowly bring these products to market and upgrade in-market products to retroactively become Matter-enabled.

But after that, it’ll all be smooth sailing, right?

Even When It Works, Smart Home Challenges Will Remain

“Alexa, do you capture customer data?”

I waited for a moment, and only a sheepish silence emerged from my little round speaker.

“Alexa”, I say a second time with a slight edge to my voice, “Do…you…cap…ture…cus..tom..er…da..ta,” enunciating each syllable clearly to ensure she understood.

Realizing that I may not let this go, Alexa retorts “Sorry, I’m not sure about that.”

I consider that an unsatisfactory response…

If companies want to navigate smart home challenges and succeed in the Matter world, they need to realize an important fact: consumers don’t trust them to take care of their data.

Recent studies show that over half of smart home owners express privacy concerns, in part because they don’t know how much personal data their virtual assistants collect.

Even if they can get smart homes working well, companies are going to need to spend considerable time rebuilding consumer trust. There are many ways to do this, but one concept stands above the rest in terms of what customers will require: enhanced visibility.

Additionally, companies that have a stake in this conversation will need to guide customers through the roadmap of the working smart home. Each product type (as well as individual products) will have its own timeframe for Matter-enablement based on development complexities, budget constraints, etc.

Companies will need to educate consumers on what they should expect so that Matter seems like a real solution to smart home problems — and not another dud out of the gate.

Lastly, the companies that sign on to Matter will need to closely examine their own vision, values, and ethics as it relates to customer experience.

Remember, these are the same companies with the mantra “win the entire customer at all costs.” If the goal of signing on to Matter is to truly enable a better experience, there needs to be a non-superficial shift in company ethos. There are no shortcuts available here; customers have caught on to the data collection game and will require companies to bring a transparent plan to the table, addressing all of their smart home privacy concerns.

Will these companies step up and meet the moment? Only time will tell.

On a Final Note

So what does it all mean for the future?

What do one-year, five-year, and ten-year smart home roadmaps look like?

As with most things, technology enablement is only a fraction of the story. The agreement on Matter is significant and will have real benefits for the consumer, but many smart home challenges and questions remain.

Will the resulting products and experiences match customer expectations? Will companies create transparent solutions that help grow trust? Will these companies truly act as agents that place the customer experience first?

One thing is sure — the smart companies amongst us will do well to pay attention to the gap between the promises and actual customer experience and create solutions that help bridge it.

Hang on to your hats (and smart locks, cameras, and thermostats), we’re all in for a wild ride!

Author: Nate Joy