When streetlights first lit up New York skies in 1880, Edison was initially revered as a hero. Electric lights were unlike anything his peers had seen before, accustomed as they were to gas lamps and candles, and they cheered to see the new technology go live.
However, that awe quickly faded, becoming a major PR problem: Victorians may have at first viewed the invention as a modernist feat, but they mistrusted electric lights and believed they were unsafe for their homes—especially after hearing about horses that were electrocuted in the streets while traveling over lanes where transmission cables were laid.
The Wizard of Menlo Park eventually gained some ground with the public after launching a massive advertising campaign—one that included dancers with lightbulbs taped to their heads, and power lines running the length of their arms—to demonstrate to audiences that bulbs were safe enough for any home. And the rest is history.
Just like electric lights, smart homes are experiencing some of the same ups and downs that plague any new technology—initial excitement, followed by resistance, especially as reports are released that detail problems. Almost every day, a new technology site puts up an article relating how it was able to hack into a smart home product in mere minutes. Meanwhile, there’s evidence that those who initially adopted smart devices like thermostats and security systems are abandoning them—an issue that was likely not helped by Nest CEO Tony Fadell’s departure at the beginning of June.
To really win over homeowners, the IoT industry needs to address current concerns and assure residents that these products are safe and easy to use—perhaps not with a song-and-dance number, but by solidifying their record as trustworthy businesses and shoring up usage and security issues. To start, let’s take a look at some of the anxieties keeping homeowners from becoming IoT adopters.
Fear #1: They’re afraid of data leaks and hacks
This isn’t a totally unfounded concern—in the rush to get IoT products on the market, many manufacturers have left security flaws exposed that make homeowners extremely vulnerable to potential cyber crime. For instance, when researchers examined nine popular WiFi-connected baby monitors, they gave eight of them failing grades for security. Most devices currently rely on passworded protection alone—a real problem, since end-users tend to pick passwords that are simplistic and easily guessed. Some even provide default credentials, without forcing users to change passwords during the installation process. At the beginning of this year, for instance, Forbes was able to hack into a large smart security system at a Youth Center simply by entering “admin” for the username and password.
And it’s not just the devices themselves—routers and wireless networks also need to be better secured to prevent hacks. Relying on homeowners to navigate the world of IT security by themselves is a sure way to sink these devices. The IoT industry would do better to recognize this as a service opportunity, employing professionals to assist homeowners with the installation process, or encrypting networks for them using global trust identity networks. Until a better option becomes available, homeowners will continue to feel wary of IoT devices.
Fear #2: They’re afraid they’ll lose their privacy
Homeowners aren’t just afraid of hackers—they’re also concerned about big data. Giving a corporation like Google or Apple access to their every movement in their homes is hugely discomforting. Companies that can instill trust in end-users that their data won’t be misused or inappropriately leveraged will go a long way with consumers. Namely, IoT producers should build in Privacy by Design features, like those available in social media platforms, that allow homeowners to choose how freely they share their personal data.
Additionally, any data that is aggregated and used by companies should be anonymized, removing personally identifiable information from the equation altogether. IoT businesses that can explain exactly how and why data is used, as well as offering some end-user control over sharing, will profit in the long run.
Fear #3: Systems seem too complicated—and they are
Smarthome devices are advertised as products of convenience—but in actuality, they often serve to frustrate and confuse homeowners. Creating a lighting “theme” is a lot more complex than just switching on a few lights, and requires insight into a user’s habits and routines that many homeowners just don’t have.
Meanwhile, behavioral exceptions occur all the time in homes. You might love having a coffee maker that wakes you up with a fresh cup and a radio that switches on the news automatically—except when you wake up with a stomach bug. Predictive and “learning” systems aren’t intelligent enough yet to consider the wide range of factors in play in homes, and that’s made many homeowners frustrated with smart devices.
Fear #4: Devices don’t “talk” to one another
Interoperability is obviously a huge problem amongst IoT devices right now. With WiFi, Z-Wave, Bluetooth, and Zigbee all out on the market, there’s no universal standard—and that’s a huge pain point for consumers.
There’s also the issue of device control. Most products are controlled locally through individual apps on a user’s smartphone, meaning there’s no one-stop-shop for settings. Devices that communicate have to be linked one at a time. Even promising unified device controls don’t solve that problem—for instance, Apple HomeKit still currently requires users to download individual manufacturer apps to work. Homeowners who might benefit the most from smarthome products, such as the disabled and elderly, could potentially find that kind of complicated set-up a barrier to entry.
Fear #5: They don’t know the impacts insurance and property values
Every homeowner knows that any purchase they make for their homes is an investment, and IoT devices stand both to bolster home values and affect insurance rates, or even how claims are made and processed. By most predictions, IoT will be hugely disruptive to the insurance field—access to real-time data about homes could allow companies to make suggestions before problems arise—for instance, to recommend roofing repairs that would save homeowners a massive claim. That’s obviously far in the future, but homeowners still have questions about how technology will affect their current rates.
While most evidence shows that smart tech does nothing but good things for property values, and may lower premiums as well, it’s not likely that most homeowners are aware of this benefit, and many may be waiting for the dust to settle before making a big investment. By strategically partnering with insurance providers, IoT companies would be able to promote the positive relationship between insurance rates and smart products, and take advantage of a mutually beneficial relationship as well.
Smart homes have a long way to go; however, IoT companies would do wise to take a page out of Edison’s book, and assuage user concerns directly and quickly, before the industry loses momentum.
The author is a blogger and aspiring homeowner. She currently resides in Austin, TX where she writes full time for Modernize.com, with the goal of empowering homeowners with the expert guidance and educational tools they need to take on big home projects with confidence.