I love Wi-Fi lightbulbs and I’m so excited, I just can’t hide it. So I wrote about it in this week’s column for the American-Statesman, which you can find in Tuesday’s print edition or on MyStatesman.com.
In the column, I talk about my sudden obsession with lighting and how it’s caused me to comb eBay for good deals on Philips Hue lights and to hit the Home Depot for Cree Connected lightbulbs. If you can get these devices at a low price, they’re great early-adopter toys that can enhance the mood of your home and offer all kinds of benefits.
But in case I don’t make it clear enough in the conclusion of the story, these devices are not perfect. For a lot of people, they’re not even practical. So in the interest of not overhyping this thing I’m really into right now, I present to you five things that are keeping smart bulbs and other home automation devices from taking off and which need to be fixed before they go mainstream:Price. This continues to be a big problem in some of the really great products like Philips Hue, products which have not dropped in price in the two years they’ve been on the market. It feels as if other home automation products, such as smart outlets and Wi-Fi security cameras are dropping in price, but when you factor in that many of these devices require the purchase of a $50-$100 smart hub to operate, it starts seeming like less of an impulse buy and more of a major financial investment. I’m encouraged that G.E. and Cree have introduced $15 Wi-Fi bulbs and that there are emerging competitors to Hue colored lights such as bulbs made by Misfit (not much cheaper at $50) and BeeWi.Ease of installation and use. This may be the single factor that made me fall in love with Hue, despite some of the product line’s other shortcomings. Setting up a starter set of Hue lights is dead easy, literally just screwing in some lightbulbs, plugging two cables in and installing an app. If other home automation products were as easy to set up and maintain, many of us would already be filling our homes with automation gadgets. And if they played well together, that would be even better. Which brings us to…Interoperability. When I visited Stacey Higginbotham’s home for a “Statesman Shots” episode on the Internet of Things, I got a first-hand look at the craziness of all the competing products in home automation. Some of them work together and there are products such as the SmartThings hub hoping to tie everything together into one neat app you’d use to control everything. But that idea is a long way from reality and there’s still no do-all solution short of buying into one ecosystem and sticking with it. That in turn makes me hesitant to invest in one particular brand for fear of getting locked into incompatible products. Here’s hoping Apple’s upcoming HomeKit and something similar for Android will ease these growing pains and that more devices eschew the branded hub to work independently with a wide array of apps. I don’t want to buy connected lightbulbs only to find they don’t work with my other bulbs and that I need multiple apps just to run the lights in my house.Be more accessible. You can’t find a lot of these products everywhere you’d expect. For instance, you can’t order those $15 Cree bulbs on Amazon or find them at Wal-Mart. They’re sold only at Home Depot. For a while, Hue products were only sold at Apple Stores and you still can’t find them at Target (but, strangely, they’ve available at Bed, Bath and Beyond and Staples). Smart home product makers need to make their products as accessible as possible. Some products may be more appropriate for early adopters to be sold at stores like Best Buy. But these companies need to do a better job of explaining to mainstream customers why these products might be useful and make them feel more like home-improvement products than tech gadgets.Understand that families are complicated. Connected devices are great products for control freaks who live alone. They get much harder to use when you have multiple members of the family turning on and off lightswitches, messing with remote controls and grabbing smart phones and tablets that you might need to shut on and off lights or to check the smart thermostat upstairs. A basic problem with smart bulbs, for instance is that if someone turns off a light switch, that bulb is dead to the Internet. You can’t turn it on with a smart phone without flipping that switch back on. That’s a very simple problem, but a huge and frustrating one. You shouldn’t have to train your family to use these products, these products should learn from how we interact with them. And when these products stop working because the Wi-Fi goes out, because the hardware/software is just buggy, or because an app update renders the smart device unusable… well, that’s not really acceptable unless you’re a masochist who loves to track down bugs all the time.
You can read the full column on my bulb obsession here
Got thoughts about smart devices and what it’ll take for them to go mainstream? Let me know in the comments.