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Renovating the smart home industry (Reality Check)

A concoction of low cost computing, plentiful wireless communication protocols and improved battery life has created the perfect environment for ‘connected things’ deployments in diverse scenarios, ranging from factory floors to everyday objects. As the internet of things is becoming one of the most talked-about trends in technology, why has the smart home not gone mainstream? According to survey data gathered by the Open Connectivity Foundation (OCF) at the annual CES consumer technology trade show in January, and observations by OCF member companies, overcoming the obstacles to broader adoption may be more challenging than expected.

It may be tempting to assume that consumers aren’t buying because smart home technology is new and they don’t understand its value, but the OCF data refutes this idea. Fully 68% of respondents said they already owned three or more connected devices, and 80% of respondents said they planned to buy new devices within the next six months.
So what’s holding them back? As it turns out, concerns about interoperability, security, ease of use, and cost topped the list. It’s in the industry’s best interests to lower these barriers to allow the smart home movement to blossom – but doing so will take a concerted, industry-wide effort that no one vendor will be able to tackle alone.

Not just connected, but interconnected
A key finding revealed by the survey is that, contrary to anecdotal belief, tech savvy consumers do understand and value the control, sense of security and utility modern connected devices and appliances provide – the smart home is not a solution looking for a problem. Instead, customers are worried that devices purchased today will not work with each other and others they may add in the future. They also worry that their devices will become obsolete quickly and suddenly, leaving them with overpriced paperweights. IoT devices in the smart home are everyday objects that interact with the real world. The consequences of lacking interoperability or planned obsolescence can be grim – imagine your smart door lock suddenly malfunctioning because it doesn’t support your newly refreshed app. Unsurprisingly lack of interoperability was cited as the top limiting factor to adoption of connected devices by 37 percent of OCF survey respondents.

Individual vendors often try to remedy this concern by offering families of related devices under the same brand, but consumers aren’t easily swayed by these proprietary ecosystems. They are aware of the increased cost of these walled garden solutions and the lack of choice around extensibility. The latter issue is a key point for the smart home – it’s unlikely that one proprietary ecosystem can deliver on category leading ‘things’ that will be deployed in various parts of the smart home, including diverse objects like soil sensors, outdoor motion cameras and smart vents. Additionally, only 33% of survey participants said they only buy from brands they trust. The rest ranked brands as only “somewhat important” to “not important.”  The picture that emerges is one of informed, tech-savvy consumers who are willing to invest in smart home technology, but who don’t want to be tied to any single vendor. They want choice between competing products.

Circle the wagons
Security was also revealed as a top concern for the survey respondents at CES, and with good reason. Most recently, the Mirai botnet – which hijacked countless connected home devices for use in distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks – demonstrated that far too many IoT devices are vulnerable to attack by bad actors. While it’s intuitive to think that certain devices would have ‘better security’ than others, there is no such thing as an ‘unimportant’ connected device from a security standpoint. The whole house can be compromised by the weakest link in the chain.

Security experts believe malware that exploits IoT devices is likely to proliferate, and consumers are concerned that device manufacturers aren’t doing enough to address these threats. Among OCF survey participants, 26 percent believed that security and privacy concerns were the leading obstacle to wider adoption of smart home technology. Another 30% said that improving the security of their products was the single most important thing device vendors could do to convince them to buy.
For the smart home industry, however, merely improving product design won’t be enough. In the wake of high-profile incidents like Mirai, device vendors will need to take additional steps to restore consumer confidence in their offerings. While technologists and early adopters are forgiving, their mainstream counterparts further down the adoption curve will not be. Consumer confidence could improve through independent security certification, a plan to address vulnerabilities quickly and frequently and commitment to building a brand where security is a key pillar. 60% of OCF survey participants said they would be “much more likely” to purchase products so labeled.

All together now
Based on the 2017 OCF survey data, the hurdles impeding broader smart home technology adoption are challenging but not insurmountable. The key theme that emerges, however, is that no one vendor will be able to overcome them alone. Consumers aren’t ready to entrust all of their smart home needs to a single vendor or brand, and they’re unwilling to invest in devices that diminish the value of their other purchases because they don’t work together.

Smart home technology is in its infancy. In order for it to reach maturity, vendors will need to set aside some competitive concerns in favor of consensus and collaboration, especially around interop and security. They should concentrate on establishing a baseline of connectivity and interoperability across vendors and brands through common protocol support and data models – something that can only be achieved through open, cross-industry standards – and work together to establish common security principles that can be audited and enforced. Doing so would go a long way toward making devices both easier to use and less costly.

In the past, the proliferation of competing standards has hampered these efforts. Fortunately, many key industry players have shown willingness to compromise, and new, open standards are being formulated as we speak. We will yet build the smart homes of tomorrow – but doing so will look less like building a castle and more like old-fashioned barn raising.

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