The year of the smart home hits half time

Experts weren't wrong when they predicted a smart-home boom in 2014. Six months later, here's where things stand -- and where they might be headed.

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Colin West McDonald/CNET

We've been busy covering the smart-home beat in 2014, but we can't say we weren't warned. Many experts predicted that this year would see near-exponential growth in interest in smart-home products, and the flood of connected devices at January's Consumer Electronics Showcase was impossible to ignore.

With increasingly affordable systems and devices, the dream of a connected home is no longer the domain of the wealthy hobbyist (or of the Jetsons). 2014 has seen the smart home move into the mainstream like never before, and major players like Apple, Google, and Microsoft appear ready to move the needle even further.

Halfway through the year of the smart home, here's a recap of the action -- and a look ahead at what's yet to come.

Big players made big plays

Not surprisingly, it's been the giants of the industry that have pushed the smart home into the spotlight more than anything else. In May, Microsoft teamed up with Insteon to offer smart-home kits with full Live Tile integration across all devices. Less than a month later, Apple announced HomeKit, a core feature of iOS 8 designed to wrangle third-party smart gadgets behind a Cupertino-approved set of standards.

But it's Google that's made the biggest splash so far in 2014, which you might not have guessed if you'd only tuned in for I/O last week, where the smart home was barely mentioned over the course of the 2.5-hour keynote.

Behind the scenes, it's been a different story. Almost immediately after CES, Google helped kick the year of the smart home off with a bang by acquiring the Nest Learning Thermostat for a jaw-dropping $3.2 billion (about twice the amount the company spent acquiring YouTube). Next up was the popular IP camera Dropcam, which Nest (read: Google) acquired for $555 million (about £32.4 million, AU$588.6 million).

What's Google got in mind for these new toys? Just take a look at the Nest Developer Program's first round of official partnerships, announced just last week. From color-changing lights to universal remotes to automatic garage door openers, Google's got a plan for every corner of the smart home, with the Nest as serving as a logical focal point.

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The Quirky+GE Aros Smart Air Conditioner was one of this year's big successes. Colin West McDonald/CNET

Small devices in search of demand

As 2014 has seen the big names of tech center themselves around safe, established categories like thermostats, lights, and locks, it's also seen smaller companies branch out into unexplored territory in search of the smart home's next breakout hit.

Just look at Belkin's line of WeMo smart-home devices. Thanks to a partnership with Jarden Consumer Solutions (the parent company to small appliance brands like Crock-Pot, Holmes, Sunbeam, and Mr. Coffee) Belkin's been able to expand WeMo to include things like connected coffee makers and even smart slow cookers.

Then there's the New York-based startup Quirky. In 2013, GE poured $30 million into the venture and -- perhaps more importantly -- granted Quirky's community of innovators access to its stash of industrial patents. That's paved the way for a slew of new Quirky+GE-branded smart devices. While some probably question the need for a connected egg tray or propane tank sensor, there's no denying that the Aros Smart Air Conditioner was a big success. Quirky's recent integration into notable automation networks like IFTTT and SmartThings only seems to reinforce the notion that its product line is on the right track.

And don't forget about the GE side of the Quirky+GE equation. The venerable manufacturer's new Link Connected LEDs aren't a direct byproduct of the Quirky partnership, but they will run through Quirky's well-polished Wink app, and not through the rather bland Brillion app that controls other GE smart appliances.

Some stumbles, too

The smart-home boom of 2014 hasn't been an entirely smooth one. We've seen plenty of exciting crowdfunding campaigns generate some serious buzz -- and raise some serious cash -- only to disappoint their backers with delay after delay (looking at you, Lockitron).

On the opposite end of the spectrum, major manufacturers seem to be cooling their heels a bit when it comes to large connected appliances, as consumers simply seem more interested in smaller, more affordable ways to try out the smart-home approach. Sure, we've seen the occasional new smart oven or smart fridge pop up, but we haven't seen a big escalation in options or features, as some analysts had predicted.

In between large and small smart gadgets are the master hubs that promise to bring them all together into a unified system. The recent efforts of Apple and Google to bring order to the smart-home universe could spell trouble for hubs like these, especially if more smart devices begin following common protocols as a result. At $299, the Revolv seems to be in an especially vulnerable spot, considering that the comparable -- and as of today, new and improved -- Staples Connect hub costs far less.

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Will Apple's HomeKit take the smart home to a new level? Tim Stevens/CNET

What to watch for moving forward

As hectic as 2014 has been so far, expect even more smart-home developments in the coming months. Does Google have any other devices on its shopping list, or will it shift from buying mode into building mode to produce a new, Nest-oriented smart-home platform? Existing open platforms like SmartThings will be interesting to watch, as well. Will they go the way of Insteon and pair up with a major player, or continue to go their own way?

Next on the calendar is Apple's iPhone event in September, and it isn't clear if HomeKit will play a major part in the rollout, or if it'll take a backseat to something like fitness tracking.

Either way, I wouldn't be surprised if we saw smart-home-centric iPhone ads start popping up by the holidays, showing busy moms teaming up with Siri to manage their connected homes, all set to a catchy soundtrack. If that sort of thing gains traction as a selling point capable of moving smartphone sales -- either for Apple or for its competitors -- then expect even more dynamic smart-home growth in 2015.

From all of these developments, we keep looking for a hint about what the smart-home experience will look like in coming years. It's tempting to imagine a world divided between Google homes and Apple homes, with devices -- and consumers -- forced to choose sides.

For now, though, it looks like we'll remain in our present, semi-open smart neighborhood, with a good deal of cross-compatibility between major platforms, and services like IFTTT filling in the gaps. Connected garage door opener maker Chamberlain has announced both Nest integration and coming support for Apple's HomeKit, for example. For manufacturers like these, the best play seems to be to support as many platforms as possible while consumers are still learning what they want from a smart home.

 

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