Our House, in the Middle of a Tweet

Home is Where the Reset Button Is
Home automation has been a hot topic among technophiles and futurists for as long as there has been speculation about the future. If you ever want to indulge in some retro-futurism, check out the “Homes of the Future” exhibits from World’s Fairs and Tomorrowlands gone by. From at least Victorian times, the desire to simplify our lives through automation has never faded away.

Will the homes of the future really be as shiny as manufacturers would like us to believe? Or are we unwittingly signing up for a lifetime spent on the phone with tech support, pressing zero repeatedly to get a live person who ultimately tells us to “try turning your refrigerator off and on again”?

In over a decade of remodeling homes and commercial spaces, I’ve seen and installed so many trendy new technologies that I’ve long since lost count. Some were fun gadgets, some were genuinely useful, and a whole lot of them ate up far more time in troubleshooting than they ever saved for the owners.

The “Internet of Things” and Why We Laugh at Online Refrigerators
One of those buzz-words that appears from time to time, the Internet of Things (IoT) refers to the trend of connecting more than just our computers to the Internet. From the early 1990s, when images of a coffee pot on their campus let University of Cambridge technicians know when a fresh pot was brewing, engineers and developers have sought ways to eke additional functionality out of the many devices that surround us.

Unfortunately, that added functionality comes with a price. A system with greater inherent complexity is inherently prone to greater downtime, and potential gains need to be weighed against potential headaches.

The idea of a wired refrigerator seems to be the one which resonates the most with the public as a ridiculous use of technology. Sure, maybe our fridge could text us a reminder to pick up milk as we drive past the grocery store, but the gap between that functionality and today’s is so large, and the public’s legitimate need for milk reminders is so small, that a wired fridge seems the height of folly. But if that relationship inverts, then we should see a much wider rate of adoption. In fact, that is exactly what happens when a simple technology serves a very real need.

A Successful Case Study: a Humble Hero that Saves Lives
Our homes are made of combustible material and filled with flammable objects. While there’s no way to completely eliminate the risk of fire, building codes and best practices have evolved over time to make things safer. (Stuffing straw into the walls as insulation? Turns out that’s not such a great idea.)

Of the newer technologies to emerge, one of the most successful has been the smoke detector. These little hockey-pucks on our ceiling have one simple job: when there’s smoke, they yell “Fire.” As simple as they are, smoke detection systems continue to improve, as better detection technology arrives and many municipalities begin to require hard-wired and interconnected smoke detectors. In these systems, a fire detected in one part of the house activates all of the alarms, allowing homeowners to react faster to any potential hazard.

There’s not a lot of flash or sex appeal when it comes to smoke detectors. Advances are all centered around the function of the device. And nothing is perfect: if you install a smoke detector directly over your stove, you’ll get so many false alarms that you’ll eventually ignore the beeping or yank out the batteries. But installed correctly, the smoke detector is an ingenious device that saves lives.

The Difference between a Life-Saving Device and a Toaster that Tweets
So, why don’t we know about the ongoing, valuable improvements in smoke detectors, while hearing all about things like toasters that will message us when our bagels are ready?

It boils down to marketing and margins. Smoke detectors and other basic home technologies are relatively easy to produce, with a low barrier to entry and strong market pressure to keep prices down. This combined with the relatively long life span of a smoke detector keeps marketing spending under control. In short, no one is plastering ads for the hot new smoke detector all over the Super Bowl.

By contrast, many of the most talked-about home automation devices are being pushed towards high margins through price bumps on IoT models. Manufacturers also seek to shorten the effective lifespan of these devices, hoping that the newest bells and whistles will encourage upgrades the way that smart phones do. A perfect example of this is the thermostat.

Toaster3

Programmable thermostats replaced the old static-hold models for good reason. They cut utility bills, they’re easy to use, and if you don’t care about their advanced features, you can always just set it to hold the current temperature. But no programmable thermostat has gotten publicity to compare with the Internet-connected model produced by Nest.

The Nest touts its ability to program itself by learning from a resident’s preferences. Essentially, it charges customers hundreds of dollars to handle the 20 minutes of programming that a normal thermostat requires, while providing no additional savings. The Nest thermostat is indisputably well-designed, and new, shinier, slimmer models come out every year. It’s a brilliantly marketed device designed to encourage people to upgrade their thermostat every couple of years, instead of decades. Unfortunately the savings it provides can be matched by almost any off-the-shelf programmable thermostat. From a pure return-on-investment standpoint, it simply doesn’t make any sense to purchase an Internet-connected thermostat at this time.

But if the Nest thermostat is frivolous, at least it’s not playing with life-threatening issues. For that, you need the “Protect,” Nest’s attempt at a smoke detector. That device garnered more than a little bit of criticism for adding too many features, interfering with its basic functionality.

Security Issues
Beyond the issues of return-on-investment and performance, there’s another dark cloud hovering over the future of home automation. Anything which connects to the Internet has the possibility of being accessed remotely. Computers, phones, and tweeting toasters are all vulnerable to disruption or control by a third party. Even implanted medical devices are not safe, something that received a lot of attention after a research group demonstrated proof-of-concept control of Bluetooth-enabled pacemakers at a live presentation. (Though somewhat on the technical side, their paper Pacemakers and Implantable Cardiac Defibrillators: Software Radio Attacks and Zero-Power Defenses makes for some fascinating reading.) Pacemaker hacking is highly unlikely, but it was deemed enough of a threat that Dick Cheney had the wireless functionality of his pacemaker disabled while he was Vice President.

Now, you may be thinking that the life of a sitting Vice President is a much higher-value target than your fridge’s data on whether or not the milk has gone sour. But just as a consumer with no money in the bank is still vulnerable to viruses and spyware, our soon-to-be-wired homes will be vulnerable to attack regardless of the data they contain. Consider that an IoT thermostat which adjusts temperature when it senses you come or go can theoretically be used to track your movements. This information could be very valuable to burglars or stalkers, or for other reasons as yet unknown. Just as the rise of botnets was unforeseen before the turn of the century, the next great black hat threat likely hasn’t been revealed yet.

Manufacturers are rolling out connected devices in ever-greater numbers. While some of these products may be genuine efforts to provide enhanced features, others are nothing more than cash-grabs disguised by flashy packaging. So is there a way to navigate this brave new world of the Internet of Things?

As a skeptical consumer, you don’t need to immediately reject enhanced features but don’t sign up for them blindly, either. When your appliances and mechanical systems wear down and need to be replaced, ask yourself if the replacement you’re considering really needs to be plugged in to the Internet, or if that’s just a way for the manufacturer to justify a price bump.

Each purchase needs to be examined on its own merits. We need to decide if the gain in quality and performance justifies the price in dollars, device lifespan, and potential security vulnerabilities. When technology relies solely on marketing rather than its ability to serve consumers’ needs, then it will always be long on promises and short on performance.