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Stacey on IoT: CES 2021: A deep breath for the smart home to determine its future

March 03, 2021 3 min read

CES 2021: A deep breath for the smart home to determine its future | 1/13/2021

Although the Consumer Electronics Show 2021 event is technically only half over, most of the big news typically lands in the first half of the week. So barring any groundbreaking announcements in the latter half, I think we can call this one early. CES 2021 demonstrated that the smart home industry is at a pause.

That’s not to say there weren’t some interesting new products or services unveiled this week. In fact, there are quite a few that intrigue me. 

I’m particularly interested in trying out the Hex Security devices that arrive this summer, for example, which use wireless radio sensing as a complete home security system. 

I can’t wait to see more router makes follow TP-Link’s lead: The new Deco Voice X20 Wi-Fi 6 router has a digital assistant built-in. That’s a great way to combine two boxes into one and help declutter the gadgets in my house. I called for this back in 2018: Adding smart home features to routers and although I wanted them to include hub functions, I’ll take what I can get.

And I’ve already gone on record that I want to see Samsung’s Bot Handy in my home, although I’m sure it’s going to be out of my price range if it ever does go on sale. 

Aside from those and some other unique products though, CES 2021 has been more of a product refinement show for the smart home.

The pandemic likely had some impact as to why. When you can’t readily get the chips you need or the production line power to build new devices, the product life-cycle can’t move as rapidly. But that last part is probably the bigger reason: For several years, the smart home industry has moved a little too rapidly, without a cohesive understanding of what problems it should solve and what services or features consumers want.

For context, I think back to the 2015 CES event. There, Stacey and I attended a lengthy Samsung keynote that was filled with promise on how everything in the home was about to be connected, bringing a nirvana to our personal abodes. Samsung and many other companies set out to deliver on that promise without really thinking it through beyond the high level.

That doesn’t mean it’s been a complete wash since then. In fact, we’ve seen much progress ranging from the now ubiquitous digital assistants and smart speakers to video doorbells and connected cameras to intelligent appliances in the kitchen. By and large, though, these are the “low-hanging fruit” of the smart home solution.

To put it another way: Has voice control of the lights or connected devices in your home really made a profound impact? Would it be that much more difficult for you to use a traditional oven to cook dinner instead of a smart oven? And how many times have you actually used that smart front door lock to remotely let someone in your home?

The point is this. Yes, these are new conveniences brought about by the smart home industry over the past half-dozen years or so. But have they really solved the major challenges or problems that we want a smart home to deliver or overcome?

I think the industry is starting to realize that no, they haven’t. Progress has been made but there’s a long way to go yet before the smart home delivers on the promise we expect. And that’s actually another reason for the perceived pause at this year’s event. I don’t think the industry really agrees on what the smart home should be. 

Instead, it went racing down a path for several years by creating a device (and app) for everything, building what appears to be a tightly integrated smart home experience.

The reality is, the smart home is still largely made of many smaller systems, some that work together while some only work with certain other similar systems. And few, if any of them, are taking full advantage of artificial intelligence yet.

It may sound like I’m down on the smart home. I’m not. Instead, this year’s CES event gave me time to take a step back to see how we got here, if “here” is where we want to be, and where we might be going. 

And in fairness to the industry, there’s still some flux in where we’re headed due to new standards, such as CHIP, a move to WiFi 6 in the home, and just getting different device ecosystems to play nicely together. That’s fine. The uncertainty due to those and other developments, particularly in terms of data privacy, provides time for us all to take that healthy pause and reassess what the smart home is and what it could be.

I’m looking forward to finding out.