Consumers are wary of smart homes that know too much

Many don't care about automation and instead worry about what voice-activated devices can hear, a Gartner survey says

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Flickr/The Intel Free Press

Nearly two-thirds of consumers are worried about home IoT devices listening in on their conversations, according to a Gartner survey released Monday.

Those jitters aren’t too surprising after recent news items about TV announcers inadvertently activating viewers’ Amazon Echos, or about data from digital assistants being used as evidence in criminal trials. But privacy concerns are just one hurdle smart homes still have to overcome, according to the survey.

In fact, Gartner found that most consumers don’t feel they need what smart homes offer. Consumer IoT is still in an early-adopter phase, Gartner concluded from the online survey, which was conducted in the second half of last year in the U.S., U.K., and Australia. Nearly 10,000 people responded.

Connecting home appliances to each other and the internet can make life easier and homes more efficient. For example, smart thermostats can learn a family’s life patterns and turn up the heat or cooling only when needed. If several products can be orchestrated together, they can build up complex sets of actions like dimming the lights, drawing the blinds, and pausing the dishwasher when the TV comes on -- at least in theory. But for all this to succeed in the long term, consumers will have to want smart homes and be willing to pay for them, probably through subscriptions, Gartner analyst Amanda Sabia said.

Some of the results revealed Monday aren’t promising.

Three-quarters of respondents said they’d just as soon set their lights and thermostats by hand as have IoT do it, while only a quarter were attracted to the idea of devices anticipating their needs and making changes automatically, Gartner said. The results were similar for doing things manually versus through voice commands to IoT devices.

The most widely used smart-home products today are home security alarm systems that detect suspicious activity and report it to a security company, which then contacts the resident, Gartner found.

About 18 percent of respondents used these, while only 11 percent used home monitoring, which notifies only the resident directly if something doesn’t look right. About 9 percent use IoT products for home automation or energy management, like systems for remote startup of lights, heating, and appliances. These adoption rates were higher by about five or six percentage points in the U.S., where many of the new solutions originated, Gartner said.

If home IoT’s going to survive long enough for most consumers to get on board, the suppliers of devices and apps may have to start getting customers to pay subscription fees. It's the only readily apparent way to make money from consumer IoT today, Sabia said. The businesses won't survive on just the prices that people will pay for devices.

Home security systems have found a way to make money from IoT with subscriptions, but with some other types of products that could be harder. For example, in the U.K., 58 percent of homes that have home automation get the service for free already, Gartner said.

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