The Smart Home Sweet Spot

A couple years back, I was checking out the initial hardware products from a nascent startup called Wyze. Compared to other smart home manufacturers, Wyze’s unique business model is to sell reasonably sturdy hardware at close-to-manufacturing costs, and invest in building good enough software on top of their ecosystem in addition to their low prices to spread word-of-mouth. 2 years later and they’re releasing everything from doorbells to noise-cancelling headphones to smart bands. I’ve mostly stuck with their line of security cameras and motion sensors, cobbling together an internet-connected home security system on the cheap1.

The fabled Internet of Things, in its current Smart Home™ incarnation, has been slow to get started but has made steady progress these few years. One major stumbling block early on was the lack of a unified standard for smart devices to talk to each other, but the rise of voice assistants—Siri, Google Home, Alexa—and their ease of use has really elevated those particular ecosystems and driven consolidation across all the other devices. That said, the current configuration of domestic smart things is mostly a centralized app/speaker issuing commands to nodes around the house, instead of a network of devices collaborating in conjunction to simplify life’s many chores2.

But all of this was made possible because of the smartphone to begin with. It acts as a universal interface that makes device installation and control much simpler than before, when previously any sort of computing device needed an LCD screen or a bunch of buttons and beeps to interact with the end user. Beyond that utility, however, there’s also the hardware advancements that phones drove through their sheer scale: ubiquitous WiFi with consumer-grade access points supporting hundreds of devices at the same time; cheap camera lenses and sensors and wireless radios; data and power standards via USB; battery and power consumption improvements. Embedded devices with computing capabilities have been available for a long time, but the economies of scale that drove down component costs have made them much more accessible.

Which brings me back to Wyze and their core premise of affordability. I’ve found that for their products and some of the other smart home devices I’ve tried through the years, the ones that work well hone close to these innate advantages derived from the lineage of the phone, while those products that require more custom hardware and complex interactions are prone to failure or just don’t work very well. That is, something like a security camera, with its footage viewable on the phone, is simple and works well; a pseudo-connected picture frame with its own storage and apps to manage its separate photo library became too clunky to update. Granted, emphasizing device simplicity doesn’t get to JARVIS-levels of environmental automation and intelligence, but we’re still early in the evolution of the home.

  1. Cheap as in more value for the price and not necessarily a crappy setup, though the company has had to deal with a data leak and accusations of sending information to China, which turned out to be false.

  2. It’s also legitimate to ask whether people actually want that level of automation, given the potential snafus when the system fails—and it will fail.

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