In praise of the humble smart plug: Are outlets the gateway for the internet of things?


Are smart plugs the trojan horse that will bring the internet of things and the smart home to mainstream consumers? My colleague Om Malik thinks so, but my gut reaction was at first a solid no. They are ugly. They are big (most of them turn a two-outlet socket into a one-outlet socket), they are expensive and they add minimal convenience or efficiency to most homes.

But after discussing the idea with Om on a podcast and getting yet another crowdfunded pitch from a connected outlet company, I decided to think about this a bit more rigorously. A WeMo connected outlet was actually the first connected device in my home that wasn’t a computer/smartphone/tablet, so in a sense a smart plug was my gateway to the internet of things. But I thought it was pretty lame for the first few months. Turning on a lamp with my smartphone was not the thrill I hoped. Christmas was the only time it came in super handy, but a timer would probably have worked just as well.

When WeMo connected with If This Then That, the connected outlet became a bit more fun. Now my lamp or a fan turned on when my stocks made sudden movements, alerting me to potential news. But was the ability to receive ambient information worth the $50 price tag? Buying a smart hub allowed me to hook my outlet into a network of sensors (plus I got another outlet) but I still tended to use it as an ambient information delivery vehicle — something I could do with even more nuance using the Hue lights, which change color.

So far my favorite use for the connected outlet required special outdoor capable lights, which allowed me to control my Christmas lights on demand without ever stepping outside. That was nice given how cold this holiday was. But since connected outlets keep on coming, I decided to look at my overall outlet use and the devices in my home to see what I might be missing. For example, a person could plug a coffee maker into a smart outlet and then tie it into a lamp turning on or a motion detector in the bedroom to start the brewing sequence.

My connected outdoor lights on the first level. There are two more on the upper two stories.

My connected outdoor lights on the first level. There are two more on the upper two stories.

Taking inventory

I went through to tally the devices plugged into my outlets and found:

1 coffee machine
1 toaster oven
1 vacuum cleaner battery
5 lamps
4 alarm clocks
7 chargers for tablets/smartphones/computers
2 TVs
2 Blu-ray players
6 Sonos devices
1 receiver
3 wireless access points
5 routers/modems/hubs
1 shredder
1 printer
2 monitors
1 night light
2 fans

There are also an assortment of gadgets from slow cookers and blenders to blow dryers and pencil sharpeners that are plugged in occasionally. In checking the list I realized that for any device to be useful it must be able to perform its primary function once the electricity returns without manual intervention. This eliminates my type of coffee machine, the toaster oven, the shredder and the Blu-ray players.

It also must be something that it makes sense to turn off. That means my hubs, access points, Sonos devices and alarm clocks aren’t smart-plug friendly. Additionally there might be either a high risk for leaving an item on (toaster oven/lights) yet a high reward from integrating the devices into a smart home system. For example tying my TV to a fitness tracker might help motivate someone to meet their step goal in order for the TV to turn on (all smart outlets should have a manual override).

Making smart plugs smarter

There are two other considerations here: measuring energy consumption and determining location. Most smart outlets from big names like Lowes and Belkin as well as smaller startups like PlugAway or Parce now have some kind of energy measurement feature, which might be useful in figuring out if your TV is a high-cost plugged-in device for which you should cut off access to power when it’s not on. Some, like Parce, offer algorithms that will turn it off for you.

So in some ways, measuring energy consumption might be the impetus to get you to buy more connected outlets as a way to save money on your electric bill. Or it might show you that cutting off electricity to a night light during the day is ridiculous.

But location could be a real game changer. Already projects like Zuli are embedding location into smart outlets and even Belkin wants to something to share location across its WeMo devices with the Belkin owned Linksys routers. Since I’d like to get some Beacons into my smart home setup, having those features built into a smart plug and supported by an app is a much easier sell than me picking up some DIY packages that require me to code.

So today, I’m still not sold on the smart plug as an essential — or even the right first investment for the smart home. But figuring out what I had and what I can do with them certainly has me excited about the next generation of smart outlets. I’d be curious how you are thinking about connected outlets and what use you find for them.

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