Navigant Research Blog

Are Smart Devices Too Smart for Their Own Good?

— February 22, 2018

There is so much promise around how smart devices will make our lives more comfortable, convenient, efficient, and automated. These devices are supposed to learn from our lifestyle patterns, analyze this information in real-time, and perform tasks seamlessly in the background, without it even occurring to the user that all of this smart stuff is happening. I have bought into this promise, having adopted several digital assistant-enabled devices and connected products, because I can see a future when all of this tech comes together to create truly smart homes. And I’m not the only one—these futuristic ideas about tech seamlessly, automatically operating in the background of our lives can be seen in popular media like Black Mirror and Her. This future is imaginable, lingering on the horizon.

The Problem with “Smarts”

However, we are still at the precipice of the technology revolution supporting the future scenarios as seen in pop culture. Don’t get me wrong, technologies emerging today really are smart, and are already making our lives significantly better. But at this time, many these devices are not actually delivering on their promise, and they don’t work that well in our everyday lives. For example, my colleague, who is also an early adopter of smart technology, has been having issues with his ecobee3 lite. His smart thermostat has started preheating at such early hours of the morning that he wakes up before his alarm clock, sweating. ecobee customer support has suggested that the problem may be because he likes to sleep cold, at 60°F, and wake up warm, at 70°F, and that the large variance in setpoint means the thermostat must kick on the heating system well in advance to make up the difference in temperature by the time my colleague is awake. The issue makes sense logically, but ultimately my colleague shouldn’t have to compromise on his desired temperatures. A smart thermostat should be smart enough to figure it out. And his Nest isn’t any better—when the cooling season comes around, his Nest sends him alerts that it is unable to activate his cooling system, when his home doesn’t even have a cooling system. I’ve heard countless stories of people tearing smart thermostats out of the wall to replace them with programmable thermostats, never opening the digital assistant device they got for Christmas because they don’t really know what smart things it can do, and returning smart plugs for plugs with a simple timer.

As a consumer, these examples have put doubts in my mind about how smart these products really are. As a research analyst, when I attend shows like CES where some of the most impressive and innovative products are on display, it makes me skeptical about how these devices will actually perform in the home. These devices are peddled to consumers as seamless, automatic, and easy to use, but sometimes it seems we are spending more time managing them than they are managing our lives. Perhaps these devices are too smart for their own good, and consumers are not ready for how advanced these products can be—we just want the old, dumb devices that we know will work. The learning curve for smart technology is steep and we are still in an early stage of piloting and innovation, but as these technologies reach the hands of mainstream consumers, vendors need to ensure that their smart products are delivering on their promises of being smart.

 

Technology Issues in Smart Devices Can Cause Major Problems for Consumers

— January 29, 2016

close up of man hands touching tablet pc screenOver the past few years, there has been an explosion of devices that have the potential to revolutionize our daily lives. Smart devices promise to help us piece together a smart home, manage our energy consumption, and track our health and fitness at the push of a button. My 82 year-old grandmother has an iPad Air, which she uses every day to play games that keep her mind sharp, browse movies online that she can send to her entertainment console, and track her vitamin and medication intake. She once casually commented, “I don’t know what I would do without my iPad now.”

While embracing smart devices can lead to a bright future of connectivity and convenience, the technology may not be developed enough for us to so readily welcome them into our homes. Lately, there have been several cases showing that these so-called smart devices sometimes have serious flaws.

Out in the Cold

For example, the Nest Learning Thermostat—a smart thermostat that can be monitored and adjusted via a smartphone app—recently experienced a software glitch that left many of its customers in the cold. This may seem like a somewhat trivial issue—unless you are elderly, have an infant, or fear your pipes may burst. Nest reported that the issue had been fixed for 99.5% of customers, yet the fix involves a complicated nine-step manual restart (to Nest’s credit, it does offer to send an electrician to your home for assistance), and 0.5% of customers still did not have a solution.

Though Nest is arguably one of the best smart thermostats on the market, its technology issues don’t stop there. In January 2016, it was reported that Nest Learning Thermostats were leaking ZIP codes over Wi-Fi, meaning that any person walking or driving by with the right equipment could intercept that information. While leaked ZIP codes are probably not the most serious security concern, it does lead back to one of the main issues around smart devices today: are these devices secure, and can consumers trust them?

Nest is not the only company experiencing technology issues. Researchers who discovered the Nest ZIP code leaks also found the Sharx security camera and the PixStar photo frame were sending unencrypted data that could potentially be intercepted. The Honeywell Lyric, a rival smart thermostat to the Nest product, was reviewed as having glitches in its flagship geofencing feature. In April 2015, Nick Bilton—the New York Times writer who covered the Nest glitch—also reported on the security flaws he had experienced with the wireless fob for his Prius. Finally, the Fitbit, a fitness/health-focused wearable, was recently hit with a class-action lawsuit over its supposedly inaccurate heart rate monitoring.

A Growing Market

Pointing out these technology issues is not meant to scare consumers away from buying a smart thermostat, a keyless car, wearables, or any other popular smart device. These devices will inevitably become a part of our lives. Navigant Research estimates that the global market for communicating and smart thermostats (and their respective software and services) alone will reach $2.3 billion by 2023. The point is that it is our responsibility as consumers to not only understand and be aware of the risks associated with connected smart devices, but also to demand that these devices be safe and secure if we are going to embrace them.

 

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