The smart home wouldn't exist without this '90s invention

Commentary: Wi-Fi was the missing piece that made the smart home whole.

Megan Wollerton Former Senior Writer/Editor
5 min read
Josh Miller/CNET

In a Washington Post article published Nov. 3, 1990, author H. Jane Lehman predicted that the coming decade would bring a new wave of home automation. Decades before it became widespread, she even used the phrase "smart home." But she also said that something was missing: "What the home automation community is waiting for is an industry standard that would tell builders and remodelers how to wire homes for total automation."

But connecting a smart home with wires wouldn't be the standard the industry was waiting for. No one knew it at the time, but Lehman and everyone else was really waiting for Wi-Fi

Without Wi-Fi, the smart home industry wouldn't exist. And without reliable Wi-Fi, today's smart home wouldn't work. That's why establishing a solid wireless setup is always the first thing CNET recommends when someone asks how to get started with smart home tech. 

That's why I'm taking you back to the mid-1990s to celebrate CNET's 25th year of being, well, CNET -- and the late '90s invention that made the smart home possible: Wi-Fi. 

Read more: These 8 products inspired the smart home revolution

But first, what is the smart home?

The smart home is a broad term that applies to pretty much any device that works with your phoneTV or smart speaker. Despite the wide variety of products in the category -- ranging from sprinkler systems to fridges and security cameras -- they all share a common goal: to simplify your daily life.

Physical stores and online retailers alike have curated "smart home" sections nowadays, dedicated to this seemingly incongruous mishmash of home appliances. And smart devices are popular -- 69% of US homes report owning at least one, according to a 2018 survey by research firm Traqline

The smart home as we now know it didn't really take off until the 2010s, but it's been predicted for much longer. A quick search of ads from the 1950s and '60s yields countless examples of autonomous robots and other visions of the future that have since become a reality. And, while slow cookersprogrammable thermostats and other "non-smart" devices may not count as smart home devices by modern standards, they have helped us automate aspects of our lives for decades.

There were even early whole-home automation systems that tied into phone lines. 

But Wi-Fi, the "industry standard" that would enable wireless connectivity and automation in a whole new way, wouldn't be introduced until 1997

Meet the Wi-Fi 6 routers that support 802.11ax

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The road to Wi-Fi

In her Washington Post article, Lehman also quoted a home builder named Leon Weiner, who said the '90s would be the "decade of home automation." Weiner was a couple decades off, but he was definitely onto something; connectivity was already beginning to take shape in a major way. 

Though the internet developed in the early '70s, it wasn't introduced to the public until the "World Wide Web" launched on Aug. 6, 1991. Back then, you got online using dial-up internet via your home's telephone line. It took a long time and it was noisy, but it worked. Somewhat.  

Around the same time the internet was being developed in the early '70s, a Wi-Fi precursor, called AlohaNET, was being used by the University of Hawaii in Honolulu to communicate with its facilities on different islands. Then, in 1973, Bob Metcalfe invented Ethernet, a way for multiple computers to connect -- and communicate -- with one another. In 1974, Vic Hayes, known as the "father of Wi-Fi," began working at Agere Systems, then a part of NCR Corporation. There, he created many data communication standards and, eventually, IEEE 802.11 -- the standard on which Wi-Fi-enabled devices are based.

In 1985, the US Federal Communications Commission released the industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) band, a band of frequencies in the 2.4GHz range.

Wi-Fi was officially introduced to the public in 1997. (A lot of other things happened in between, too, but this is the abridged version, focused on key developments that moved the internet closer to Wi-Fi in the '90s. Check out this CNET 25 article for a more detailed chronology of other tech innovations that dominated that decade.)

Wi-Fi and the smart home

The "industry standard" Lehman asked for was finally here -- and people were excited.

"We stand at the brink of a transformation. It is a moment that echoes the birth of the Internet in the mid-'70s, when the radical pioneers of computer networking -- machines talking to each other! -- hijacked the telephone system with their first digital hellos," Chris Anderson wrote in a Wired article published in May 2003 about the creation of Wi-Fi.

"What makes the new standard so alluring?" Anderson continued. "Wi-Fi is cheap, powerful, and, most important, it works. A box the size of a paperback, and costing no more than dinner for two, magically distributes broadband Internet to an area the size of a football field. A card no larger than a matchbook receives it. The next laptop you buy will probably have Wi-Fi built in. Wires may soon be for power alone."

That last sentence is the key: "Wires may soon be for power alone." 

Can you imagine trying to use a smart speaker if we still had dial-up or if you used a wired broadband connection instead of Wi-Fi? How would you handle multiple smart speakers? Or just multiple smart devices in general? The number of cables and cords connecting them to broadband would make the smart home -- especially the DIY smart home -- extremely cumbersome. 

By connecting smart home devices to the internet, and thus the cloud, Wi-Fi also enables access to expanded features. Natural language processing for smart speakers, usage pattern algorithms to make your smart thermostat run more efficiently, and video image processing so your smart video doorbell can distinguish a person from a passing car often occurs on computers in the cloud that you couldn't access without Wi-Fi to bridge the gap from your home out to the larger internet. 

Without Wi-Fi, designers, engineers and other product developers might not have even been able to dream up the smart home devices we use today, let alone enable the thousands of integrations among them. Of course, there are other standards that enable connected devices, from Zigbee to Z-Wave -- as well as proprietary protocols, like Lutron's Clear Connect, but those hubs still have to connect to your Wi-Fi router to allow communication between devices. 

Wi-Fi is the bridge that pulls it all together -- and we have the '90s to thank for that. 

Read more: The best Wi-Fi routers of 2020