T3 Opinion: The Internet of Things is nearly a thing of wonder, but it still needs work

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Here’s the tech dream: your home is almost a living thing, learning your personal habits, reacting to you as you move around, making your life as simple, and your energy use as efficient, as possible. You are Man 2.0, in your space-age bachelor pad.

Here’s the tech reality, as it stands: you’ve got a load of mundane or gimmicky bits of kit that won’t talk to each other, and you have to reboot your router to turn your lights on, and call a help centre to heat your house.

In the past year, I’ve been sent plenty of these ‘connectables’, the new wave of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-enabled home devices. They make everything into a smartphone accessory, regardless of whether it needs to be or not. I’ve tried plug sockets that I can switch on with my phone, four different types of smart bulb; then there was the kettle, the football (oh yes, kids today can no longer just go out and play football, they have to charge it up first), the security camera that doubled up as an air-quality monitor, the sleep sensor and the thermostat. Because I no longer need to move from my couch, I’ve become obese – but as every one of these requires a different app, at least my fingers have become lean and toned from the constant tapping.

Groaning routers

It’s impossible to get a smart home up and running without serious planning. None of these rival devices talk to each other or can be grouped. And really, having to fish your phone out every time you want to, say, turn the lighting down a tad doesn’t feel very futuristic – light switches and dimmers are, as it turns out, a pretty convenient way to control your lights. Who knew?

So how about adding a motion sensor to turn your lights on as you approach? Well, yeah, so long as it’s on the same system as your bulb, and you don’t mind yet another thing added to your router, which is already groaning under the weight of competing dongles and Wi-Fi signals.

Move past the mundane stuff – bulbs, plug sockets, IP cams that aren’t sure if they’re baby monitors or just a means of creepily watching your family while you’re out – and you soon hit another problem. There are brands that make great homewares – kettles, for instance – and there are brands that know how to get basic Wi-Fi switching sorted out. There’s not a lot of overlap. So at present, if you want to boil your kettle from your bedroom, you have to settle for one that’s slow to heat up and has slightly clunky looks for its premium price.

So at the moment, the connected home is the preserve of a small number of enthusiastic hobbyists. You have to be prepared to get down and dirty with your router, put in the time to set everything up, become acquainted with IFTTT, and feel a genuine buzz of pleasure at knowing your Withings sleep sensor can now tell your Nest thermostat that you’ve woken up.

Oh, and ignore the fact that your old thermostat’s timer used to give much the same result, but more reliably and with less requirement for rebooting your network on a semi-regular basis.

Two things need to happen for the world of connectables to go mainstream. First, the number of standards has to reduce. Everyone making this stuff knows that, and they all say, “Yes, we need standardisation. That’s why we’ve set up our own standard, so everyone can join us on our team.” Sorry, chaps, it doesn’t work like that. Ideally, the market needs to be like smartphones, where you have a duopoly, with one rigidly policed system and one slightly looser one. That way, people can feel like they have a choice, but there isn’t confusion and despondency over too much choice.

That could be Apple HomeKit and (the Google-owned) Works with Nest. Or it could be Microsoft and Withings. Or it could be two completely new companies.

The other, I think more important, thing that needs to change is that your smartphone/app/sensor/whatever control needs to be fittable to anything, without the need for knowledge of circuit boards and soldering irons. That will be the real sea change, when a Bluetooth LE module is as standard on electrical goods as a plug is.

Consumers outside of T3 Land still need a lot of convincing that they need everything in their home connected to everything else, all controlled via their mobile device or TV. Connectables right now are like the early days of aviation: there’s plenty of excitement but a lot of the products have a charming primitiveness to them and, my gosh, there’s a lot of crashing.

Liked this? Why not read Best smart bulbs for your connected home

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