I spent my CES looking for the solution to the growing complexity in the smart home and didn’t really find it. Instead, I came to the conclusion that the best option out there for a regular person trying to create an easy-to-use smart home automation system is the Works with Nest program. Not the not-even-ready-for-prime-time HomeKit, not SmartThings, not Wink or Insteon or any one of a dozen still-to-be-launched hub and sensor packages that are still coming to the market in 2015.
Now, when it comes to ease of use, the Works with Nest program won’t let users do anything beyond link their devices and select whether they want to turn a feature on or not, but its options are becoming more useful and powerful every update. And at CES, several partners announced updates, making it much more likely that most Nest owners can now experience a product that will tie into their Nest thermostat or Protect.
For example, Philips announced a Works with Nest tie in that lets your light bulbs slowly dim when your thermostats move to the away setting. If it stays in Away for more than a day, the light bulbs then start randomly turning on and off to simulate you being home. It took me three screens to link my Nest and Hue accounts and turn that feature on. Presumably now I’m saving energy and have improved security whereas before when I’ve gone away I’ve set my Nest and manually programmed my lights. There is a SmartThings app that allows for the lights to randomly turn on and off, but I’ve literally never found it.
So while the Works with Nest program isn’t for someone like me who came back from CES pumped to try to create an IFTTT recipe that will make it possible to turn on my Hue bulbs in the morning in my closet and have them glow a different color based on whether or not the temperature is higher or lower than 40 degrees so I know how to dress for my dog walk (yes, I could just do an IFTTT recipe so my Sonos just tells me the weather via SmartThings) it is for people who don’t want to spend time troubleshooting or thinking about their homes.
Zonoff, the company behind the Staples Connect software, also is trying to make its programming a little less programmatic by letting people answer a few questions when they install a new device. As Mike Harris, the CEO of Zonoff explained in an interview at CES, “When people install a new smoke detector, there is a limited number of things they are likely going to want to do with it, so we ask them if they want to do them.”
So it may ask if you want to have your lights blink when your smoke alarm goes off and your doors to unlock automatically. You click yes, and the software sets it up. Unlike with the Nest, the Staples Connect hub still leaves you with the ability to program all the other scenarios you’d like, but it is trying to offer the same trend of limiting the customer’s options and need for interaction with the devices in order to get some functionality.
In many ways this is disappointing. I already knew I wasn’t going to find the one platform or a unifying standard at the show, and indeed saw the big platforms grow stronger, but I was hoping for some more intelligent and contextual user interfaces. I saw sparks on the horizon, with learning light bulbs from Stack lighting (also a Works with Nest partner) or the integrations that app-maker Muzzley is building.
But the path to the truly intuitive home appears to be paved with limitations and perhaps a few false starts. If you’re going to buy into the smart home today, then I suggest you invest into one ecosystem such as Insteon, Wink or a known quantity. Or, if you decide to just go with the point devices you need, start with a Nest.
And believe me, I wasn’t a huge Nest fan starting out. But for the lay person, it’s not a bad place to end up.