For the last few months -- several times in the last 24 hours -- I've heard a phrase that is usually said with a bit of an edge, "We're living in the future." And according to the folks at CES, things are going to get even more futuristic -- the Internet of Things (smart homes, smart cars, smart whatevers) is going to see to that. But there are two factors that may be slowing the behemoth down a bit: standards and price.
The first is obvious: Everybody wants to get in on the act, but consumers are caught in a confusing welter of which products -- and which ecosystems -- to go with. At a press conference on Sunday morning, LG's CTO Skott Ahn talked about wellness platforms that wouldn't only track your sleep habits, pulse and other personal issues, but would use that information to actively control lighting and air conditioning, among other things. (Remember the house in the TV show Eureka? The one which told its resident what he was going to do next rather than asking?) To enable that, LG’s HomeChat technology, which uses spoken language to control products, is being made compatible with Nest products, one of the major IoT vendors.
Cool, yes? But Nest, while well known, is not yet a standard (not yet, anyway). There are a vast number of "smart" products being introduced, some of which work well together, some of which work sort of well together, and some of which, well, aren't compatible at all. Which is hardly surprising -- those of us who go back a ways remember a time when there were several email systems out there, none of which were compatible with the other. Gamers have to make sure they have the system that offers the games they want to play -- or they're out of luck. But these are trivial compared to the number of different Internet of Things products are being touted here at CES, a large percentage of which only work with a limited number of partners.
Problem number two is simply that, while it is nice to see vendor touting fancy kitchen gear, sophisticated audio systems and lighting arrangements, how many of the people reading this already own this type of product? Or plan to purchase it within the next year?
According to Samsung's Tim Baxter, who spoke at a press conference on Monday, there is a great deal of interest in the Internet of Things -- a solid 1/3 of Americans are interested in adopting it. However, he continued, 2% actually own it. Baxter said that he believes it's about living smarter. Presumably he was not talking about living within a budget. Samsung's new “Chef Collection” refrigerator, for example, goes for about $6,000.
And that, I think, it why so few Americans own smart products. Until recently -- and, if you look at some of the products being shown at CES, for the foreseeable future -- the "smart house" is a luxury item, one that is still beyond the means of most people, even those in the middle class, who have kids to educate, loans to pay off, and more to deal with than buying an electric stove that uses "virtual" flames to show you how hot it is.
There are starting to be exceptions -- for example, there are a number of security systems that are fallen well within the term “affordable” (the Canary home security device, for example, which will ship in February, is priced at $249).
And of course, almost all the technologies that we use today started off as luxury items and eventually moved to being everyday possessions -- mobile phones, for example. But it remains to be seen whether the Internet of Things spreads out through the popular, or remains the Internet of Things Most of Us Can't Afford.