Smart Home Devices Need to Get a Lot Smarter

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Imag­ine a dish­wash­er that requires a user­name and pass­word. Smart homes will require unprece­dent­ed effort to ensure not just secu­ri­ty but also usabil­i­ty.

June 30, 2014

The bat­tle between Google and Apple is mov­ing from smart phones to smart things, with both com­pa­nies vying to pro­vide the under­ly­ing archi­tec­ture that net­works your appli­ances, util­i­ties, and enter­tain­ment equip­ment. Ear­li­er in June, at its annu­al devel­op­er con­fer­ence, Apple announced Home­K­it, a new soft­ware frame­work for com­mu­ni­ca­tions between home devices and Apple’s devices. Mean­while, Nest, a mak­er of smart ther­mostats and smoke alarms that was bought by Google ear­li­er this year for $3.2 bil­lion, recent­ly launched a sim­i­lar endeav­or with soft­ware that lets devel­op­ers build apps for its prod­ucts and those from sev­er­al oth­er com­pa­nies.

Indeed, a quick look at the “Works with Nest” web­site reveals just how inter­con­nect­ed our future is about to become, with smart cars telling our smart ther­mostats when we’ll be home, smart dry­ers keep­ing our clothes “fresh and wrin­kle-free” until we arrive, and house­hold lights that flash red when the Nest detec­tor sens­es smoke or car­bon monox­ide.

In fact, though, many of us are already liv­ing amongst an Inter­net of (some) things. We have desk­tops, lap­tops, cell phones, stream­ing devices like Apple TV and Roku box­es, and even smart tele­vi­sions. It’s just that these sys­tems have bare­ly begun to work togeth­er prop­er­ly, and there­in lies the prob­lem.

The visions of Google and Apple will require a lot more than new frame­works and devel­op­er con­fer­ences to be tru­ly trans­for­ma­tive. They will require hereto­fore-unseen lev­els of reli­a­bil­i­ty, secu­ri­ty, and usabil­i­ty. Oth­er­wise we’re in for a frus­trat­ing and pos­si­bly dan­ger­ous net­worked future.

Wi-Fi is a key enabler of the net­worked home. But while Wi-Fi is now present in more than 61 per­cent of U.S. house­holds, many homes have incom­plete cov­er­age, and when Wi-Fi doesn’t work, debug­ging is dif­fi­cult. It will need to be dra­mat­i­cal­ly more reli­able than today to sup­port the net­worked future.

Broad­band Inter­net will need to be more reli­able as well—as reli­able as elec­tric ser­vice is today. For many this may mean cable modems that can fall back to some kind of wire­less 4G ser­vice, per­haps from a dif­fer­ent provider. These modems will need to be dra­mat­i­cal­ly eas­i­er to install and main­tain than today’s.

We will also need improved debug­ging sys­tems for when the Inter­net doesn’t work as it should. Today the pri­ma­ry recourse when your Inter­net is down is to reboot the cable modem, the lap­top, or the smart TV—or even all three! And per­haps the prob­lem wasn’t even in the house. To legit­i­mate­ly be con­sid­ered smart, smart devices must assess what’s wrong with the con­nec­tion, and then help fix it.

Con­nect­ing any­thing to a secure home Wi-Fi net­work is a chal­lenge for many. And some devices need addi­tion­al authen­ti­ca­tion infor­ma­tion, such as an Apple or Google user­name and pass­word. When pass­words change, the smart objects need to get the new pass­words, or they cease to work.

This approach of bind­ing our smart devices to our per­son­al accounts may be an easy engi­neer­ing deci­sion today, but it will make less sense as more devices show up in house­holds with mul­ti­ple fam­i­ly mem­bers. Fam­i­lies shouldn’t be forced to decide if the dish­wash­er is bound to Mom’s Gmail account or Dad’s. Instead, the house­hold should have its own iden­ti­ty, with dif­fer­ent fam­i­ly mem­bers hav­ing dif­fer­ent lev­els of access depend­ing on their needs.

Dif­fer­en­tial access will also be crit­i­cal for the wide range of for­mal and infor­mal arrange­ments that many house­holds require. Think about babysit­ters, house­clean­ers, main­te­nance work­ers, and build­ing super­in­ten­dents. If these peo­ple need some way to inter­act with your smart devices, there should be some way to give them that access with­out shar­ing your user­name and pass­word. And there should be some way to review their actions after the fact. And all of this del­e­ga­tion and audit­ing will need to be easy to con­fig­ure and use with­out read­ing a man­u­al or watch­ing a video.

Beyond the issue of usabil­i­ty, the smart home will be an attrac­tive tar­get for hack­ers and mal­ware. Even if the devices them­selves repel attack­ers, oth­er points of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty include mal­ware-infest­ed desk­tops, lap­tops, and mobile phones. Smart things will be attacked, almost cer­tain­ly in ways that we can’t antic­i­pate today. Even sim­ple data leaks might cause sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems if they can be sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly har­vest­ed and exploited—for exam­ple, thieves might be able to deter­mine when you’re not home. Voyeurs might hack your sur­veil­lance cam­eras.

With both Google and Apple aggres­sive­ly mov­ing into this space, anoth­er con­cern is the degree of com­pat­i­bil­i­ty between devices. Today, these firms are erect­ing bar­ri­ers between their home enter­tain­ment offer­ings, with Apple TV and Chrome­cast, for exam­ple, offer­ing sep­a­rate con­tent, pric­ing, and stream­ing mod­els.

Some third-par­ty ven­dors will sure­ly try to stay out of this fight, offer­ing apps that run on both iOS and Android, or are sim­ply con­trolled via a Web inter­face. While that kind of strat­e­gy might work for a smart light bulb, it’ll be hard­er for the mak­er of a major appli­ance. If com­pa­nies chose one ecosys­tem over anoth­er, it will be hard for con­sumers to switch from Apple-pow­ered appli­ances to Google-pow­ered ones.

Two things about the smart home of the future seem sure. First, giv­en the array of resources being lined up on both sides of this fight, there is unlike­ly to be a dom­i­nant win­ner, mean­ing less flex­i­bil­i­ty for home­own­ers. Sec­ond, the com­ing wave of smart devices will rely on tech­nol­o­gy that is ill-equipped to guar­an­tee reli­a­bil­i­ty, and will also intro­duce com­plete­ly new ways for things to go wrong. So the com­pa­nies that make them will need to put far more focus on secu­ri­ty, usabil­i­ty, and pri­va­cy to earn both cus­tomer accep­tance and trust.