In the wake of the resignation of Tony Faddell, the founder of smart thermostat maker Nest, the future is looking cloudy not only for the smart thermostat maker, but the broader smart home business as well.
Nest, after all, was supposed to be the trailblazer that led us to the smart home revolution. When Google put down $3.2 billion to buy it in 2014, it appeared to make sense -- Google was already running much of our online lives, and this would give the company a way to run our offline lives as well. (Or, I suppose more accurately, make our offline lives become part of our online lives.) The charismatic Fadell seemed to be the right pioneer, given his product experience at Apple, which he could apply to Google’s more open computing vision.
But Nest proved to be a less-than-ideal poster child.
It was slow to put out products. When it did, it wasn’t always a success. The company’s Nest Protect smoke alarm hit early problems that required the company to disable its most innovative feature -- the ability to wave your hand under the detector to stop the alarm. (It was a particularly attractive feature for bad or at least smoke-heavy cooks.) The company also fielded very public complaints about faulty software that, as the New York Times reported, literally left people in the cold. Then, earlier this year, Nest announced that it would stop supporting the Revolv, a smart home hub that it acquired along with a smart appliance firm of the same name in 2014.
All of these developments served, in some capacity, to highlight problems consumers are having with the smart home market. It sounds pretty great to have thermostats, light bulbs, ovens and security systems that anticipate our every move. The reality has been something less wonderful -- a fractured market of occasionally buggy appliances that work with some, but not all, of the systems out there.
And, perhaps most tellingly, despite the public problems Nest was facing, no single company has positioned itself as an alternative.
So beyond the early adopters, consumers right now are having some trouble getting aboard the smart home express. For people who don’t have the time to sort out whether their light bulb will talk to their smart speaker -- and to come up with passwords for all those accounts -- the smart home still seems to be part of a fictional "Jetsons"-esque future.
A survey from the consulting firm Accenture found early this year that some people had actually abandoned their smart home appliances. Many said they were worried about what implications having smart devices held for their privacy and security. They added they were particularly worried about getting hacked -- an understandable concern if you’re trusting, say, a smart security camera with your safety.
Others had a much more prosaic, but no less troubling concern: they found the set-up process too complicated. For most people, having to find out if your lightbulb will work when you hit your digital switch is too much of a hassle -- particularly when you have a reliable low-tech alternative. Add in the worry that any device you bought could become a paperweight two years later because the company’s no longer supporting it? That makes it seem hardly worth it to invest in the system at all.
The smart home market is certainly still promising -- but that, by definition, means it’s an area with its fullest potential ahead of it. Amazon’s Echo, the forthcoming Google Home, and the rumored “Siri-in-a-box” are all appealing because of what they could do down the line -- act as the personal concierge that can follow you from your home to your car to your workplace.
But right now, these home hubs feel like a novelty rather than an essential part of our lives. And without firms such as Nest pushing those developments, hubs lose a great deal of appeal. Even the greatest hub needs spokes.
That’s particularly true if the intelligent voice assistants that power those hubs make their way into our smartphones. If Siri-in-a-box can do everything Siri-in-my-smartphone can do, there’s no real reason to buy it. Sure, maybe Google Home can buy me movie tickets, but I’m not going to buy a separate appliance if my smartphone -- which is also sitting on my kitchen counter -- can do the same. The added appeal of the home hub, at least for me, is as a way to set up and control my appliances and not have to clutter my phone up with an app for every single appliance.
Nest and Google had a shared vision of making not just an innovative product, but an innovative network that could support a number of appliances to make our lives better. That’s an appealing vision. But, right now, it’s one in need of a new banner carrier.