When you decide to buy a new three-piece suite, you expect it to grace your living room for a number of years to come. Such is the case with almost any investment in the home – a kitchen renovation, or even a new coat of wallpaper – these products are built to last, and sold accordingly.
This simple premise appears to have been lost on many manufacturers currently touting connected home technology. Rather than recognising the importance that consumers attribute to products for the home, this area has quickly become commoditised.
As a result, products crucial for the operation of a home – such as locks, thermostats and speakers – are instead treated as disposable luxuries that the customer will buy, then throw away a couple of years down the line. Treating home automation products as if they have more in common with a mobile phone than with a piece of furniture has sparked a frantic race to the bottom on price.
The last twelve months have seen a redoubling in efforts to bring the connected home experience to ‘the common man’. As a result, companies are cutting corners and putting products to market that are often barely capable of replacing the existing systems they aim to revolutionise. From smart bulbs and intelligent locks to more outlandish crowdfunded ideas such as clothes-folding robots and automated watering systems for the garden, a surfeit of off-the-shelf products on the market has emerged.
With several of these products, the onus is generally on the customer to work out what devices will speak to which, and plan for this accordingly. Since many of them will not automatically communicate with each other, the do-it-yourself route quickly becomes a minefield of jargon, standards and compatibility, requiring significant research on the part of the homeowner before everything can be made to work together in harmony.
Having been sucked into the Silicon Valley ethos of always needing to have ‘the next big thing’, many companies are pursuing fast replacement cycles, or else using built-in obsolescence as a means of securing a more reliable revenue stream. This practice dates back to the 1920s, when a cartel of international light bulb manufacturers clubbed together to limit the maximum lifetime of their products and thereby sustain a healthy rate of unit sales.
The most high-profile example of this in the connected home is Revolv, a smart hub bought by Nest and subsequently thrown onto the technological scrap heap. Like many similar smart home products aimed at early adopters, it had a small user base, yet these customers were left with a piece of kit that was inoperable only a short time after it had been purchased.
To go back to the three-piece suite example: if your sofa fell apart three months after buying it, you would quite rightly be outraged. Nest might have refunded former Revolv customers, but the company is far from alone in implementing a strategy where a device’s lifetime is dictated by the manufacturer’s willingness to continue supporting it, not the physical limitations of the product itself.
Scarce support and miserly maintenance
When connected home technology is handled by a professional installation company, they will usually offer a support and monitoring service to ensure that the equipment is not only maintained regularly, but that system errors can be fixed and malfunctioning hardware replaced as and when required. With off-the-shelf technology, a product warranty will still exist but, once this has expired, you are left on your own if any problems subsequently occur.
Whether rightly or wrongly, some manufacturers have been accused of treating these warranties as little more than guarantees of a minimum working lifetime, with several instances shared online about products breaking shortly after any obligation to provide support has expired.
Considering the scare stories out there, consumers are justified in having concerns about investing in residential technology – but such fears do not take the larger picture into account. Not all technology is equal and, despite there being an abundance of hardware based on the fast replacement cycle ethos, there are equally a significant amount of products that are built with a longer useful lifetime in mind.
The connected home is hardly a new concept; there are several established companies – Crestron and Lutron among them – that have operated in this space for a number of years and built up a proven track record of installation and support through their various suppliers and specifiers. Granted, the installation of these systems will not be as simple or as quick to implement as an off-the-shelf, IoT-based solution, yet they bring with them a number of assurances: namely superior performance, increased device longevity and a long-term product roadmap. This often includes regular software updates and occasional field upgrades for your existing device, which prolongs the useful lifetime of the initial investment.
As technology evolves, smart home appliances are becoming more affordable – but it is a while away from being a genuine mass market proposition. Homeowners might be tempted to invest in a low-cost, short-term option, but this section of the market is in such rapid flux that there is no guarantee that it will remain viable beyond the warranty.
As it stands, connected home technology is split into two camps, forcing purchasers to make a choice. One option is to treat the smart home as a commodity, in which case the costs are absorbed up front with an additional budget built in for replacement once the warranty has expired. A fully-fledged installation and maintenance contract, meanwhile, means recurring monthly costs but also an assurance that the technology implemented will remain up to date and operational for the full lifetime of the system.
Which you elect for will likely depend on your specific needs – and also on the amount you are prepared to spend on technology for the home. That said, it worth remembering that taking the option that initially seems cheaper might not be the most cost-effective choice when the expense is measured over time.