Developing The Smart Home

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Part II: What Will Be The Point of No Return In Smart Home Automation?

This is Part II in a five-part series titled, “What The Next Billion Dollar Smart Home Startup Will Look Like”. Be sure to catch up on Part I and subscribe to updates.

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On January 9, 2007 Steve Jobs stood up on stage at the Macworld Expo in downtown San Francisco and debuted the iPhone. From that day on, the world was never the same.

It was still more than a year before the App Store was announced and the famous, “There’s an app for that,” slogan became imprinted in the global consciousness. But looking back, it’s so obvious that this represented the point of no return for mobile computing. Within ten years we saw Instagram, Uber, Airbnb, Spotify, WhatsApp, and thousands of other groundbreaking services emerge that took advantage of this new era of mobility, and permanently transformed our daily lives.

What Will Be the Point of No Return in Smart Home Automation?

At this day in age it’s worth asking, what will be this “point of no return” in the smart home? What will be the technology that improves people’s lives so drastically that they can’t possibly imagine going back to the way things are. And perhaps most importantly, has it already happened?


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Diagnosing the “iPhone Moment” in Smart Home Automation

When the iPhone was first revealed, its world-changing status was not immediately apparent. At the beginning of 2007 BlackBerry was king and the PalmPilot was still the height of mobile computing (if you’re younger than 25, look it up).

Infamously, TechCrunch panned the first impressions of the iPhone and declared triumphantly that it would bomb.

Part of the difficulty in seeing just how revolutionary of a device Apple had created at the time was that there wasn’t any precedent in the industry to compare it to. After all it was just a phone. Sure, it had a fancy touch screen and pinch-to-zoom, but how much more could be done with cell phones that wasn’t already being done by the BlackBerry or Motorola RAZR?

Much more, it turns out.

Because what would go on to make the iPhone such a game changer was not just better hardware, but a new type of operating system that allowed virtually anyone to develop great experiences for the platform. Within just a couple years there were millions of apps for every niche and audience imaginable.

Smartphone, Starting With the iPhone, Became an Extension of Ourselves

Suddenly the cell phone in our pockets was not just a tool, but something much more intertwined and important in our lives. The smartphone, starting with the iPhone, became an extension of ourselves, a new interface for interacting with our surroundings. This combination of great technology and groundbreaking user experience is what catapulted us at sonic speeds into the smartphone era.


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What About Voice Assistants?

Looking for a similar “iPhone moment” in the smart home industry, it’s not hard argue that we’ve already passed it thanks to voice assistants. Their runaway success in the past two years would certainly suggest it.

At the end of Q3 2017, Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP) estimated that there were more than 27 million smart home speakers installed in U.S. households alone. Add a booming 2017 holiday season for Amazon and Google and the release of the Apple Homepod in early 2018, and that number is likely much higher today.

And like the iPhone, the explosion of Amazon Alexa and the Google Assistant have been characterized by excited, word-of-mouth growth. Your friend or family member gets one, you see all of the amazing things it can do firsthand, and then before you know it you’re an acolyte yourself.

What About Smart Home Automation?

But while the success of voice assistants is undeniable, it’s hard to determine if this is actually having a ground-breaking effect on the smart home industry at large. Yes, people are buying smart speakers to revolutionize how they consume news, music, and search in their homes, but is it making the other parts of their home smarter?

Based on the struggles that many smart home startups continue to face, we’d say the answer is probably ‘no’.


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The Automation Gap In the Smart Home

One of the amazing benefits of having built the Yonomi app is that our highly engaged consumer audience gives us insights into trends and obstacles in the smart home that we just wouldn’t be able to get elsewhere. If we release a feature that makes their lives easier, they will let us know. If we release a feature that does the opposite, they will absolutely let us know.

It is millions of data points like these that have helped us realize that, while major contributors to the smart home experience, voice assistants are not going to be the game-changer device in the smart home the way the iPhone was in mobile computing. At least not yet.

Despite the popularity of Yonomi’s integrations with both Amazon Alexa and the Google Assistant, we’ve found that voice commands still only make up 59% of all Yonomi Routine triggers on the average day. The rest are triggered automatically by a pre-programmed event (31%) or manually through the Yonomi app (10%).

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So while great for hands-free commands, it turns out that smart speakers and voice assistants are still only relevant for around 60% of the smart home experience. There are vast portions of home automation that Alexa and the Google Assistant just can’t help with.

If we’re going to see an explosion in the smart home industry the way we’ve seen with mobile computing, it’s going to take more than voice to deliver a truly groundbreaking user experience.


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What True Smart Home Automation Could Look Like

The reason that voice assistants are falling short of this “point of no return” in the smart home is that they’re an alluring but incomplete way of automating the home.

While it can be a neat trick to say, “Alexa, turn on the lights,” it’s not that different from reaching over to a switch and flipping them on yourself. You’re still the one that has to consciously turn them on. You walked into a dark room, saw the lights needed to be on, and used the closest interface to manually make that happen.

This is not the type of experience that makes one think, “I’m never going back!” in the way we might when we stare at our old flip phone today.

What ever happened to the idea of true smart home automation? What if the lights just powered on at our favorite setting automatically when we entered a room or walked down the hall? What if our bathroom mirror came alive in the morning with personalized news and updates for the day? Or, if the house knew when we left to catch the train and automatically locked up and put itself to sleep for the day?

Wouldn’t those types of experiences make you vow to never go back to the “old way”? If we’re going to see a point of no return in the smart home industry, we need more startups and companies focused on closing this smart home automation gap. We need to make it simpler and easier for anyone to launch a device or service that brings these experiences to life, the way we've seen with mobile apps.

We need the best minds focused on delivering amazing experiences across the whole home, and not just on developing voice assistant integrations.


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Part III: Infrastructure Is Killing Too Many Great Smart Home Ideas

Next month, we’ll be back with Part III in this series, “What The Next Billion Dollar Smart Home Startup Will Look Like”. Subscribe below to receive updates on why infrastructure one of the most dangerous challenges that smart home startups face, and why too many great ideas are killed by backend issues before they ever get off the ground.


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