If the smart home is already mass market, the mass market isn’t listening

The stats suggest we are still a way off a mass market era for the smart home – but that doesn’t mean installers shouldn’t start preparing for when it happens.

It’s currently in vogue for tech analysts to say that the smart home is the next big thing. Clinging to their tried-and-tested technology adoption lifecycles, they suggest that the early adopters have been convinced now and that it’s just a matter of time before we all embrace a more intelligent home.

It’s be a neat theory, but the evidence doesn’t support it. According to Statista, smart home technology is only present in 6.1% of UK households. As defined in the technology adoption lifecycle, about one-in-six consumers (or about 15%) are either ‘innovators’ or ‘early adopters’, aka those who try out new technologies first and help to popularise them among the general public. Based on current rates of adoption, we’re unlikely to reach this level of market penetration until at least 2022.

There are several well-publicised reasons why people can be reluctant to commit to the smart home, with cost a fundamental cause. Those of us in the industry know first-hand that, more often than not, it is in more expensive properties that smart home technology tends to be found. While smart homes have become slightly more affordable, there remains a considerable price gap between consumer devices and custom installations.

“The danger is that a poor experience with cheap IoT devices can leave people less likely to spend more on a bigger and better system when they eventually can afford it.”

Another factor is demographics. The generation most likely to be interested in the smart home are Millennials, whose relatively low disposable income means they are also the least likely to be able to afford a custom smart home. Instead, many turn to cheaper, DIY gadgets which offer a less-than-optimum user experience, including limited interoperability with other smart platforms and potential insecurity vulnerabilities. The danger here is that a poor experience with cheap IoT devices can leave people less likely to spend more on a bigger and better system when they eventually have the means to afford it.

Custom-built vs off-the-shelf

A properly-installed custom smart home is still the most reliable, trustworthy way to make a property more intelligent. Yet if Apple, Google, Amazon and others get their way, then this won’t be the case for very long. All three are among those who have introduced smart devices and/or interfaces for the smart home, and they make no secret of their desire to dominate the sector.

Apart from the star power that comes with the name recognition that homeowners have with these brands, there is another reason why us in the CI industry need to be wary. The way in which these companies design their user interfaces – from Apple’s simplistic approach to Google’s Material Design language – are quite rightly lauded as iconic approaches to the user experience. While the interfaces that we install into our homes tend to be increasingly sophisticated, they are not always designed as if they are at the bleeding edge of technology. A greater emphasis on UX/UI is something that the custom smart home community needs to target if it is to hold onto its ‘premium’ label.

female standing by crestron keypad and Amazon Echo in her home

The second area in which these companies are already leading the way is in technology innovation. By leading the way in voice-controlled devices for residential environments, companies such as Amazon and Google are not only able to establish voice recognition as a user interface, but also gather a huge amount of proprietary data that helps them to develop their artificial intelligence capabilities.

This is important, as it hits at the heart of the matter – that what we currently call a smart home isn’t actually all that intelligent. Many current-day ‘smart homes’ consist of little more than AV equipment with a sophisticated control interface that also ties in lighting/heating control, rather than a system that can think, adapt and automate its behaviour to make users’ lives more comfortable.

If the CI sector wants to be able to continue justifying its premium reputation, it will need to adapt to these wider trends in technology. This will undoubtedly mean collaborating with big tech – at least to a certain degree – as few, if any, smart home manufacturers will be able to compete with these huge multinational corporations in terms of the research and development capabilities available to them.

Don’t panic… yet.

It’s worth reiterating a simple truth: a smart home installer provides a service, not a product. Regardless of whether the systems we install cost £50 or £5,000, where we are valuable to a homeowner is our ability to understand the technology going into a home and ensure that it can all work together seamlessly. Often as smart home installers, we focus too heavily on selling the products we are installing, rather than highlighting to homeowners the benefits that they will derive from the service we provide.

“Often as installers, we focus too heavily on selling the products we are installing, rather than highlighting to homeowners the benefits that they will derive from the service we provide.”

The truth is that many people do not – and will not – have the technical knowledge to install a smart home for themselves, and nor will they want to. Amazon, Google, Apple and the others might end up building most of the technology that ends up in our homes one day – but someone will still have to be on hand to install it. As such, smart home integration is – and will continue to be – a critical service that even the biggest technology manufacturers will need to rely on to get their products out into people’s homes.

bedroom of Andrew Lucas-installed Kenwood smart home in Hampstead London

All of this doesn’t mean change isn’t necessary in the mid- to long-term. While the offer of maintenance and support long past the standard warranty date is an important differentiator compared to DIY devices, at some point smart home installers will have to accept that the products we put in will need to both cost less and be much easier to put into a home.

Likewise, while the time it currently takes to install a smart home can be justified on several levels (it takes time to get it right, wired infrastructure requires substantial installation and the extra comforts that we put in place are worth the wait) this will not wash as well with younger generations of homeowners, who are used to plug-and-play functionality and an ‘everything wireless’ approach.

There are still opportunities to engage with these consumers, however. While they might not want (or be able to afford) their own fully-fledged smart homes right now, younger consumers still see the value of the smart home – 72% of them would worry less if their parents or grandparents had smart home technology installed in their homes. Exploiting this concern opens up new routes into people’s homes which, while not necessarily as lucrative as the premium home market, could go a long way towards demonstrating the value of intelligent technology in the home to multiple generations and pushing acceptance of the smart home that bit further towards the tipping point of mass market adoption.

Integrators might have to adapt both our approach and our expectations in the short- to medium-term, but the fact remains that, like architects, we have a specific set of skills that cannot easily be replicated. As long as our sector moves with the times, there is no reason why it cannot not just survive, but also thrive for many decades to come.

Ben McCabe is the editorial and marketing lead at smart home installer Andrew Lucas London and at VR consultancy Andrew Lucas Studios.