Last week, with a fair degree of razzmatazz and press coverage, Microsoft launched a smart thermostat called Glas. Except it wasn’t really Microsoft’s. And whilst it might be pretty, it certainly isn’t smart.
If you look behind the promotional video, it’s clear that it’s not really driven by any desire to be smart. It’s come out of Johnson Controls, who have been designing dumb thermostats for many years, and it perpetuates the dumb elements of control, which means it won’t save users as much money as a proper smart device could. However, small things like the truth didn’t stop them headlining it as “reinventing the thermostat”. I suspect the only reason that Glas exists is that Microsoft are currently in a poor third place in getting their Cortana speech recognition capability into the market. I quite like Cortana, but compared with Amazon and Google’s success in persuading consumer product manufacturers to support their offerings, Cortana is definitely an also-ran.
What you see if you watch the video carefully is an outdated control system, a user interface that was probably inspired by Bishop Berkeley and an attempt to break the second law of thermodynamics. All of which details appear to have slipped past the rose-tinted editorial glasses of the technology press, who have just said “Shiny – want one!”. So let me explain why it’s another smart opportunity missed.
It’s a New Year, which means it’s time for the annual week of madness in Las Vegas which is the Consumer Electronics Show. For four days, the electronics industry comes together to tell consumers what they ought to be buying, whilst analysts and the media try to predict what will really be the hot product sector for the coming year.
Over the last few years, as PCs, tablets and phones have lost their wow factor, that’s proven to be a little more difficult than it used to be. In 2014, the consensus was that wearables would be the next big thing. They have definitely made strides beyond basic step counting, but are still smouldering rather than setting the world on fire. Instead, the innovation which caught the public imagination at CES in 2014 was the selfie stick.
In 2015, the smart money was on smart homes. But with a few exceptions, consumers felt the smart thing to do with their money was to buy more selfie sticks. This year, the pundits will probably predict that 2016 will be the year of the drone. My guess is that most consumers will still prefer to buy selfie sticks. Unless someone comes up with cheap drones that take selfies*.
Of course, like all good works of fiction, the CES show contains a number of interesting subplots, one of which will be the battle for mesh.
What has the hacking of Ashley Madison got in common with smart homes? The answer is that both are likely to increase the number of divorces. If that seems a strange statement, talk to the wife or partner of anyone who’s got a smart home system (it’s generally the husband who buys and installs them). Most feel that it’s not improved their quality of life; it’s just added another level of frustration, because now they have a home which can go wrong.
Of course, that’s not the message the industry wants to get out. If you believe the analysts and the smart home manufacturers, your home is about to evolve from the thick bricks on the block to the Nobel Prize winning genius of housing. Technology is finally about to transform the place you live in into a high IQ domicile that reacts to your mood and presence, keeps you safe and saves you energy.
It’s a great story that plays to some excellent futuristic videos, from global technology giants like AT&T, through boutique technology leaders like Nest to the successful crowdfunded visions of Oomi, Nuimi, and Blaze Automation. In their vision, it’s slick, it’s sexy and it’s almost here.
Or so it appears if you look at where the funding’s going. This week Jawbone, maker of the Bluetooth headset and more recently of the UP wristband, managed to raise $93 million in debt financing based on sales of its new products, with the rumour of a further $20 million in VC funding to come. It’s not alone. Earlier this year Fitbit, founded on clip-on devices, but now another player in wrist real estate had VCs falling over themselves to give it an additional $43 million.
In contrast, the smart home market has begun to look decidedly unexciting. After the Nest love-in, which raised them $80 million at the start of the year, their German rival tado only managed a measly $2.6 million from its previous investors. I’d always tended to discount the Nest fundraise, not because of the product, but because of their heritage. Ex-Apple staffed start-ups in California with slick products seem to get VCs wetting themselves in much the same way as followers of the cult of Apple do at the launch of a new iPhone.
If you take a look at the media coverage, it’s also pretty obvious where everyone considers the action to be. It not what we live in – it’s what we wear on our wrist. Investing in Smart Home looks rather dumb.