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Interoperability: The Future of Smart Appliances

Tue Aug 14 00:00:00 EDT 2018

Years ago, a fridge with a display screen popped into the market, providing a glimpse into the future of smart appliances. Unfortunately, internet connectivity was not an option at the time, so the only function of the screen was to adjust the controls. But how often do you change the settings of your fridge? As you can imagine, the product was never accepted by the market, because it didn’t offer sufficient value to the customer. 

Smart appliances – in fact, all connected devices – are at a crossroads. It is no secret that consumers aren’t fully mesmerized with smart appliances—yet. Until recently, they weren’t willing to pay extra for connectivity; however, the price of connecting devices has decreased enough that the functionality comes whether the consumer wants it or not. So, how will today’s trends affect the future of smart appliances?

While connectivity may be an expected feature in today’s appliances, manufacturers have had a tough time explaining its benefits to consumers. This is primarily because solution providers have struggled to manage the back-end of connectivity. As appliances become more connected, device manufacturers uncover new challenges. According to Jabil’s 2018 Connected Home and Building Technology Trends survey, 40 percent of solution providers complain that buyers don’t understand the value of investing in connected devices. This finding may simply expose the communication divide between product manufacturers and consumers. Regardless of the cause, more user education is required. 

The Jabil survey also reveals that half of the participants face challenges in developing an interface that works the way users expect. This is a double-edged sword. Appliance manufacturers want to provide the right type of experience to consumers, but they want data from these connected devices to guide them in that endeavor. This is where things get tricky. 

All solution providers plan to use data generated by their connected home and building solutions in some way. Most notably, manufacturers say they will use the data to:

  • Identify and solve problems with devices before they fail
  • Understand use models to guide product development
  • Provide reports to end-users

This may all be well-intentioned and harmless, but consumers aren’t typically aware of the data that manufacturers are collecting from these connected devices. 

Connected Appliances: An Experiment

In a recent TED Talk, journalists Kashmir Hill and Surya Mattu shared the results of an experiment on what smart devices know and share about consumers. The main question: once your appliances can talk to you, who else are they going to be talking to? 

For the experiment, the team transformed Hill’s apartment into a smart home—connecting everything to the internet—the fridge, the television and even toothbrushes. Mattu installed a special router to examine and analyze the network activity for two months.

In those two months, there wasn’t a single hour of digital silence in the apartment. Mattu could tell exactly when the family went to bed and woke up, what TV shows they enjoyed watching and for how long, and how often they brushed their teeth. Even when Hill went on vacation for a week with her family, the in-house activity was nonstop.

“You give up a little privacy, and you get some convenience or some price breaks in return,” Hill said, adding, “But that wasn’t my experience in my smart home. It wasn’t convenient; it was infuriating.” While she enjoyed amenities like the smart vacuum, other things in the house drove her insane. They ran out of electrical outlets, had to download a dozen apps to control everything and had to use brand-specific terminology to tell their voice assistant to start the coffee maker. 

"We need the companies to rethink the design of these devices with our privacy in mind, because we’re not all willing to participate in market research, just because a device we bought has a Wi-Fi connection,” Hill explained. It is easy to assume that consumers relinquish some privacy when purchasing connected devices, but is it fair for them to constantly have their data mined? Even anonymously? 

This experiment alone displays many of the challenges that solution providers are facing today. 

All Roads Lead to Interoperability

We are already starting to witness the future of smart appliances. Today, these appliances are starting to connect with a suite of products. For example, if your thermostat is aware that you are not home, it can enable your dryer's wrinkle-guard, so your clothes don’t wrinkle. This level of device-to-device communication is propelling the success of smart appliances and, ultimately, the future smart home. Data exchange between devices will enable new levels of convenience in and out of the house. 

Data from the Jabil survey shows that B2C solution developers still haven’t made up their minds on their approach to integration. While 53 percent of participants say they would describe their company’s solution culture as “interoperable” or “open source,” another 47 percent believe a controlled ecosystem is the way to go.  

connected home and building tech trends - tech ecosystem culture

In an interoperable environment, two other areas are of special importance: communication standards and data security.

In the journey toward interoperability, data communication standards will be essential for connected devices. Therefore, it is no surprise that 97 percent of participants in Jabil’s survey agreed that having such standards to enable easy connectivity to other systems and devices would be valuable. That way, manufacturers can develop devices that speak the same language. That is the first step to interoperability. 

One aspect of the smart home that poses more challenges, though, is data security. As we mentioned, many solution providers currently struggle with managing the back-end of connectivity. It is no wonder that hackers can skulk their way into everything from websites to databases. Necessary data protection processes are not in place to prevent malicious actors from doing as they wish, but the recent General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union may be an early indicator of more laws coming in this area.

Given all these challenges, 99 percent of solution providers say technology or business partners will be important to their connected home and building strategy. Topping the list, product brands will be looking to third-parties with expertise in data management, manufacturing and cloud, among others. We can expect to see more partnership across industries in making the smart home a reality. 

Future Vision for Smart Appliances

Years ago, consumers would hold onto their appliances for 10 to 15 years. We’ve now reached a lifestyle where consumers are swapping their washers, dryers and refrigerators in half the time because of how quickly technology progresses. Connectivity is only one of the drivers for this trend. Appliances are also becoming more efficient, leading to lower energy costs.

The future smart home boasts convenience and comfort. The smart appliances of the future will be able to seamlessly communicate with each other and gain heightened awareness of their own functions and features. Your fridge will be able to give advice on what recipes to try, based on the upcoming expiration dates of the goods in it and collaborate with the oven to ensure the food is cooked for the right duration. It will also help you understand how and when to call maintenance and what’s going on with the device itself. All these developments are teasing us from just around the corner. We just have a few more things to figure out until then.  

Download the Connected Home and Building Tech Trends Survey Report