Technology is enabling the creation of smart homes, but the jury is far from issuing a unanimous verdict regarding the commercial potential of connected houses and related in-home wireless applications.
An online, opt-in survey of 1,021 Internet pundits conducted by Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center and the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project revealed a fairly even split, with 51 percent of respondents agreeing that energy and money-saving "smart systems" will be significantly closer to reality in people's homes by 2020 and 46 percent contending that such homes will still exist in the realm of fantasy.
Hindrances cited in bringing the vision of connected homes to fruition include the significant costs and necessary infrastructure changes needed to make it all work as well as the fact that people are quite comfortable in their current "dumb" surroundings.
The survey, conducted during fall 2011, also requested written responses from those surveyed. William Schrader, founder of PSINet, wrote that the Internet will function as the control fabric for the smart home, smart car and smartphone. "The Internet will make it not only feasible but easy and cheaper than not doing it. That is what will drive Americans to the smart home," he said.
An anonymous commenter suggested the rise of smart homes will be driven by what some might consider Orwellian government mandates. "The drive to decrease energy consumption and reverse climate change will spur the introduction of smart grids and smart systems. These likely will be mandated by governments just as safety and health regulations are imposed today--for our own good," wrote the respondent.
One of the survey's more intriguing responses came from Tracy Rolling, product user experience evangelist for Nokia (NYSE:NOK), who notably mentioned "my iPhone" rather than, say, "my Nokia smartphone."
Wrote Rolling: "Bwahahahahah! Smart homes. Yeah. No. Nobody really wants a smart home. Also, proprietary technology and a lack of organized protocols and formats means (sic) that this is not going to take off for a very, very long time. My iPhone won't want to talk to my GE smart toaster and my Bosch smart refrigerator won't connect to my generic smart coffee maker. People don't seem to want this stuff very much. They like for their homes to be dumb. How many people do you know who have bought one of those alarm-clock coffee pots, loved them for a month, and then stopped using the alarm-clock feature all together? Smart homes are like that on a grand scale."
The question of commercial viability is obviously crucial as telcos and vendors invest in products to make connected homes a reality. For instance, in early May AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) launched a new home automation service under its Digital Life unit, which intends to offer remote monitoring and automation featuring Web-based access to energy and water controls, as well as professionally monitored security services. Similar services are being offered by Verizon Communications (NYSE:VZ) and Comcast as well.
Operators and vendors are also investing in smart mobile systems that extend to realms such as healthcare. "In the next decade there will be huge demand for home medical alert systems, and the market will respond to that need--health will be a bigger driver than environmental issues," wrote Hal Varian, chief economist at Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), commenting on the survey.
Nonetheless, there are already emerging legal hurdles restricting the introduction of wireless healthcare into consumers' lives. For example, GigaOM recently reported on delays that a simple Bluetooth-enabled toothbrush faced in getting to market once the U.S, Food and Drug Administration decided the electronic dental tool fell into the category of regulated medical devices.
Lee Rainie, director of Pew Internet and co-author of the smart home report, said regulatory issues are among potential pitfalls holding back smart homes. Survey respondents overall expressed concerns about "getting the various players to agree to standardize communication across sectors of consumer products and making the right moves in regard to oversight of regulation and the provision of incentives to encourage positive change," said Rainie.
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