Want to attract the average consumer? Skip the hardware preview

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For the last two years I’ve been reviewing connected devices as part of my role as Gigaom’s internet of things reporter. I’ve spent hours fiddling with radio networks, sliced my fingers open attaching wireless hubs to my garage door opener, giggled with my daughter while weighing out sugar on a connected scale, and generally had a good time. I’ve even had a few adventures in home wiring and and the occasional shock.

But of the dozens of products I’ve tested, only a few have actually been ready for the market when they’ve reached my hands. In a few cases this is to be expected: some were Kickstarter-backed projects that were shipping to the developers and reviewers at the same time and some were hitting my doorstep a month in advance of their availability in stores.

But others were shipping to the general backers or worse, in stores as I was testing my own versions of the products. And they just weren’t ready.

After two years of this, I think it’s time the market and its participants stop shipping products that aren’t up to snuff. Because as more people start picking up these devices and trying to see what the smart home is all about, a bad experience with an underperforming or buggy product is going to turn them off from the whole concept.

Sometimes, it’s worth the wait

winkbox
Take for example, the Wink home hub from Quirky. This product launched in July with major backing from Wink and Home Depot. My guess is the companies involved felt the pressure to get into the market quickly since there were already several players ranging from small (SmartThings, Revolv) to big (Staples Connect and Lowes Iris) that had been selling for months and even years in the case of Lowes.

But when Wink launched, it was buggy, lacking support for basic devices that it shared radios and aisle space with, and consumers who picked it up were pretty frustrated. Luckily, it was cheap, and Wink had the cash to keep it in the market and manage its retailers’ frustration with returns — a luxury smaller startups don’t generally have. But still, any customer who decided to take a chance on Wink to see what the fuss was about wasn’t likely to walk about thrilled with the smart home experience.

Wink wasn’t ready for market. But what about LIFX, the $99 connected light bulbs that change color and connect via Wi-Fi? The bulbs were pricey, but since Philips Hue had primed the market, others were coming in with newer variations, and LIFX was winning accolades. But in July, after a few of my friends had picked up the bulbs, an English hacking firm reported that the bulbs exposed users to a significant security flaw by letting people hack into to users’ Wi-Fi networks. Not only that, LIFX stored users Wi-Fi passwords all in one database. Both problems were quickly solved, but the exploit and the database setup exposed some basic flaws in how LIFX had handled security and notifications. Simply put, it wasn’t ready.

Take it on faith

canary
My final beef with products that aren’t ready concerns those companies that are pitching some type of algorithm as part of their value, but the algorithm isn’t quite trained on enough data yet. Much like the vaporware of the 1990s, I think of these products as faithware, as in we just have to have faith that they’ll work well and do what we want them to do. Algorithms aren’t magic. They have to be trained and even the act of training them introduces biases that mean it may not work in the way we want it to.

If something has a learning algorithm that assumes you love things one way (sleeping at night, for example) and you don’t live that way, it’s not going to make your life easier. So products like Canary home security system (which is on sale now and will ship in March) that offer an algorithm that will arrive eventually worry me. If learning is a big reason you are buying a product then make sure that’s a feature that exists straight out of the box when you buy it rather than down the road. Because ideally you’ll want to train it within your return window for that item.

The home is a shared environment

This may sound harsh. I know that all of these companies are after a first mover advantage and everybody is out there right now popping a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth module on an everyday object and building an app for it. But hardware is not software. There’s only so much iteration a consumer is willing to take when it comes to a functional object that she plans to install in her home. Especially an object that will be used by everyone in that home.

Nest and Philips Hue both were consumer ready products.

Nest and Philips Hue both were consumer ready products.

As I’ve been playing with devices I’ve expected the quality to get better over time. And while I think there has been a slight uptick in overall quality — devices coming out of the PCH incubator for example tend to arrive consumer-ready (although without as great support for Android devices) I’m still surprised at the overall uneven quality of the products that are shipping to consumers. Maybe some of the entrepreneurs who participated in how we built it campaign at our Structure Connect event last year can offer a lesson or two.

Please, guys. I love hardware and I love connected devices. But the mainstream consumer isn’t going to love anything that they have to spend hours troubleshooting. Or that they have to worry about from a security standpoint. We may love playing with our connected outlets and sensors, but trust me, everyone else wants to just set them and forget them.

You have to release products that let them do that. Until you can, keep them to yourselves.

6 Comments

Arel Tsalach

Stacey, Can you please name the few connected devices that were actually been ready for the market when they’ve reached your hands? Will be good learning experience…
Thanks!

markjnorton

You tell ’em, sistah! Your voice is louder than individual consumers and IoT vendors need to hear this.

john

Mr. Fred Brooks said “it takes 1 effort to make a software for your own department and 3 times the effort to make the same software to be delivered to the customer”.
In Silicon Valley you have a bunch of people who build cloud based services. Those developers have no clue how to build software that actually runs on the customer premises.

chris

Maybe “the press” :) should focus on the more mature product lines more often? The sensationalism of covering only startups causes the industry to look bad when the “old” workhorse folks in the industry that have been in the market, making the user experience better and easier for years quietly go unreported. I’ll put Nexia out there as one of those, but only because I work there.

Cheers Stacey!

Stacey Higginbotham

Fair enough. And as mature companies modernize by opening up APIs and embracing non-proprietary wireless protocols or even apps on our phones instead of dedicated remotes I spend more time looking at them. But yes, the media should share the blame. Mea culpa.

Joe M

Stacey, part of the reason I don’t have any connected home gadgets myself is from watching what you go through. I’m capable of figuring these things out too, that’s just not how I want to spend my time. I sure hope people will listen to you.

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