The dream of the Internet of Things has not only came true, but is arguably most evident and valuable in the household, a traditionally difficult environment for technology to really penetrate since the advent of TV.
A connected home goes far beyond the smart speakers that immediately spring to mind, such as Amazon's Alexa, the Google Home, and Apple's HomePod, but stretches into connected lamps from Ikea, connected lightbulbs from Philips, through to smart switches, plug sockets, microwaves and more.
Smart speakers do, however, play an integral role, whether by accident or design. They turn voice into the next user interface paradigm enabling a step-change in the user experience. No longer do customers need to jump between suppliers competing apps and online services to operate their connected home devices, now they only need ask their smart speaker, and their experience transforms from friction-filled to friction-less.
The growth of voice-activated smart speakers has been incredible to witness over the past few years with 15% growth across 2018. There are now thought to be over 33 million smart speakers in use in homes across Europe, with growth set to continue into the future. Alongside the growth in other smart devices, this trend looks set to continue.
More recent connected devices, such as the Google Home Hub and Alexa Show, now come with screens, and are commonly present in places in the home which have had little screen-based penetration before, such as the kitchen and bedroom. For brands, this provides a potential new gateway and opportunity to both market to customers in new environments in a contextually relevant way, but also to provide useful services in new contexts, which deliver value to customers and helps them to achieve new things.
The tech point of view
The central point of the connected or smart home is currently the smart speaker. The market is dominated by Amazon and Google with their Echo and Home products. These vendors have been quick to forge links with other smart home technology suppliers such as wireless sockets, and light switches, and baby monitor suppliers.
Of course, connected home technology is much more varied than speakers alone. Everything from your fridge to your home security can now be connected to the internet and most importantly, to each other. IFTTT enables interactions between all of your devices and apps. The potential is limitless. By connecting all devices to each other and enabling sensors, users and applications to operate or cooperate together, the connected home really does becomes smart, and a new ecosystem of opportunities exists for developers to really extend the connected home with unique solutions to common problems or needs.
One of the challenges to the evolution of the connected home is data privacy. The concern is around the data being transmitted. With IoT devices streaming data about your appliances from your home, and your smart speaker listening to everything you say, many people are concerned that their privacy will be compromised.
We should expect change in voice activated smart devices, natural language and visual recognition technology as they move to what's called 'the edge' - where more of the processing will be done locally on the device. Companies like Snips are one of the players in this sector, powering alternative smart speaker products with privacy-centric solutions. However, expect the major vendors to follow suit.
Data security and firewalling will also need to evolve in order to ensure hackers cannot interact with your smart home without your permission. If there is a way out or your network, then there is a way in. This will drive positive change in router or hub design, and create new opportunities for vendors to extend hub security, enabling users to be secure in the knowledge that their smart home network is safe and robust. Router technology or hubs will need more advanced security and firewall capabilities to ensure connected homes can't be compromised.
There is also the question of data ownership. There are a number of organisations which aim to enable users to own and potentially monetise their data. Given the volume of information the smart home could generate, will users look to retain that data and allow third parties - whether organisations or other individuals - to subscribe to it, in return for some kind of reward or financial benefit? Could the smart home itself drive income streams for users?
The future of the connected home is bright, but as with all technology, it will drive change across multiple sectors and could therefore drive opportunities for all.
Mark Stewart is CTO at Mubaloo.