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TechNewsWorld.com

Smart Homes: The Power, the Pleasure and the Pain

By Richard Adhikari
Mar 28, 2018 5:00 AM PT
smart-home

You've seen the ad: A family is vacationing out of town and the parents suddenly wonder if the house is locked up properly. They use their smartphone to remotely activate the smart locks and security system.

Or this one: Someone rings the doorbell or merely approaches a home, and the homeowner uses a smartphone to speak through the video doorbell system -- even when not at home -- perhaps bewildering the visitor (or potential intruder) who can't tell where the voice is coming from.

There's also the "Calling Ashley" commercial for Amazon's Echo Spot:

Reams have been written about how great it is to use your voice to control your home's smart devices; how your smart, Web-connected fridge can monitor its contents and be programmed to replenish stocks automatically; how you can control your home's smart lighting and locks with your smartphone; and how your smart Internet-connected appliances can be controlled -- and even repaired and maintained -- remotely.

This picture has a dark side, though, as many Alexa-powered device owners recently found when Amazon Web Services' U.S. East region experienced a widespread outage that knocked out service to their gizmos.

When More Than the Lights Go Out

Amazon's servers were down for a large part of the morning on the day the outage occurred, taking Alexa-powered devices out of commission. Incidents like this may occur more often as the popularity of smart home devices grows.

Overall, 75 percent of security device sales include at least one smart home device, according to Parks Associates.

Smart speaker shipments totaled 32 million units in 2017, 300 percent up year over year, Strategy Analytics found. Google and Amazon accounted for 90 percent of sales. Google's market share increased to about 35 percent in Q4, while Amazon's share fell to about 50 percent. Meanwhile, there were a host of new entrants to the market.

"The most common feature for smartphones right now is smart devices," noted Michael Jude, Michael Jude, research manager at Stratecast/Frost & Sullivan. "After that, it's smart lighting, security and then other things."

Intelligent agents like Alexa have a "rather low penetration rate of about 9 percent," Jude told TechNewsWorld, but that number "is growing fairly quickly."

Frost projects a worldwide market of nearly 1.8 billion smart agents by 2025.

Smart Device Vulnerabilities

Smart devices can be taken down by a variety of problems, including Internet outages, loss of access to the Internet, AWS or Google server outages, and loss of WiFi access.

In such circumstances, "your smart HVAC would no longer respond to outside events," noted Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

You wouldn't receive alerts for broken pipes, for example, he told TechNewsWorld. "Your smart sprinklers could either malfunction or fail to function; smart TVs would revert to their non-smart alternatives; and if you have a DVR, it would no longer update or know to tape longer for an event that ran long."

The intelligence of intelligent agents is not in the local device but the cloud," Jude said. "When the link's broken, the local intelligence disappears."

This "could have life threatening implications" if the device controls such things as security and HVAC systems, Frost's Jude pointed out.

If the intelligent agent's control were limited to optional or discretionary services in the home, an outage would be "irritating but not threatening," Jude said. However, that could change if the intelligent agent controlling a smart thermostat should fail in mid-winter, for example. It could threaten the safety of a homeowner who might be too elderly or frail -- or not tech-savvy enough -- to deal with the issue.

"My home is massively modified, but an outage like this currently only truly affects my ability to use music and voice commands," Enderle said. "The locks also have keypads which continue to function. The garage doors still have remotes, as does the gate."

Enderle's refrigerator has Internet access and serves as a hub, but "much of the data remains local and so does control," he said.

As we move into the future and put more of the control information into the cloud, possibly allowing intelligent agents to exert more control -- such as powering down a device -- the risks could come more pronounced, Enderle suggested.

An outage could mean that "a lock that used proximity and Web validation rather than a keypad would simply cease to function and you could be locked out, or even into, your house," he said.

The inability to receive alerts when away from home and loss of remote control are the most critical issues facing smart home device owners, suggested Patrice Samuels, senior analyst at Parks Associates.

The risk with not getting alerts from critical devices -- such as smoke, carbon monoxide or water leak detectors -- and with loss of remote control, she told TechNewsWorld, is that the owner wouldn't be able to mitigate the damage caused by those issues.

Smart Homes: The Power, the Pleasure and the Pain, Part 2


Richard Adhikari has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile technologies, CRM, databases, software development, mainframe and mid-range computing, and application development. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including Information Week and Computerworld. He is the author of two books on client/server technology. Email Richard.


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Which capabilities in a home robot might induce you to consider buying one?
Help with daily housecleaning chores
Companionship for elderly or disabled family member
Entertaining and educating children
Monitoring security all through the house
Keeping inventory and restocking items when needed
Nothing would persuade me to consider getting a home robot.