If it isn’t reliable, the smart home is as good as dead

Last Friday morning, my partner woke me to ask why the lights weren’t turning on. We weren't dealing with a power outage or black out. It was a case of our Amazon Echo Dot not responding. No matter how many times we said "Alexa, turn on the lights", the Echo Dot simply flashed up a red halo while spouting error message after error message.

Alexa's non-compliance coincided with that morning's Telstra broadband outage, which I was presumably affected by. Power-cycling my modem got me up and running again, and brought Alexa and my smart bulbs back to life. It was a small inconvenience, but it raises a bigger issue: if the smart home isn't reliable, it falls apart.

Smart home appliances are a joy when they work. I love being able to dim my bulbs from the couch, simply by asking. I love that my heater turns on half an hour before I wake up in winter. But I hate having to fix them. Thankfully, this hasn't been something I've had to do too often, but when I have, it's typically been because of an issue with my home network, or my internet connection. My router stopped showing my 5GHz Wi-Fi band the other day, which again required power-cycling, power-cycling the Echo Dot, and power-cycling my smart bulbs to get everything up and running again.

As a tech savvy person, this isn't a big deal, but it's frustrating nonetheless. I can only imagine it how much of a hassle it would be for my parents, for example. Even if it's not the appliance's fault, any issue with it – network related or otherwise – becomes a big black mark. After all, light bulbs are just meant to work. If you keep dealing with smart home related headaches, you'll eventually get to the point where the confusion outweighs the convenience, and it just gets easier to go back to living in a "dumb home".

Obviously, smart home appliance manufacturers don't have control over larger problems such as internet outages, but that doesn't mean a solution isn't required, whether it's an offline mode or 4G fall-back. I’d happily put a data SIM in my Echo Dot to ensure it’s always working.

Apple, Google, Amazon, Samsung, and LG are all fighting for a slice of the smart home pie, but very little is being said about reliability. If the smart home is going to go mainstream, issues should be easy to trouble shoot, but more importantly, we shouldn't be seeing issues.

When you hit a light switch, when you turn on a heater, when you unlock your door, you know it's going to work 99.9% of the time. The same needs to apply to the smart home. If smart home appliance manufacturers can’t achieve this kind of level and simplicity, the smart home is as good as dead on arrival when it comes to mainstream adoption. We’ve all got enough devices to troubleshoot already.

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