Among the more unexpected effects of the COVID-19 pandemic over the last half-year or so is the sudden home improvement boom it set off among consumers. Unexpected, but not entirely surprising, as consumers suddenly spending nearly all of their time in their homes these days have realized that home ought to be as nice and as comfortable as humanly imaginable. And since they’re not eating out, travelling far from home or going to events very much these days, many even have the budget to make some upgrades.
New furniture, new appliances, new floors, swimming pools, gardening supplies, tools boxes, paint and patio furniture are just a short list of things that have seen their sales surge as the homebound have begun feathering their nests and making their homes more comfortable, useful and aesthetically pleasing.
And, as new data released by Security research company Security.org indicates, that upgrade wave among consumers is increasingly extending to making their homes smarter as well. The overwhelming majority of consumers report already owning at least one smart home device (91 percent), with a very solid majority planning to purchase more in the not-too-distant future. The survey found 64 percent of respondents said they were planning to buy a new type of smart home technology within the next year.
Now, there are caveats with the data — the first of which is the survey cast a very wide net for what “counted” as a smart home device to get to that 91 percent, including expected stuff like smart speakers, smart lights, thermostats, etc, but also things like smart TVs, which tend to inflate the figures. But the survey does show that smart appliances are gaining ground among consumers, which at least strongly indicates that smartening up their homes is increasingly becoming part and parcel with the whole home improvement rush among consumers.
A Variety Of Smart Homes
What exactly constitutes a “smart home” as of late 2020 is in many cases a matter of perspective. On one end of a spectrum, a smart house might refer to a home with a few elements like lights or thermostats connected to a smartphone app that gives their owner the option of remote control. On the other end of that spectrum are the fully wired-up domiciles running a series integrated systems and leveraging an entire collection of connected sensors and household items working in concert — care of a lot of very complex programming and automation routines.
Between those two points there are a variety of connectivity options.
In fact, according to a recent New York Times article on the state of the great smart home expansion nationwide, what distinguishes the current surge in smart home technology adoption among consumers from the home-automation rushes of the past is the degree to which the current smart home can be an entirely DIY venture. The veritable explosion of smart refrigerators, washing machines, window shades and air-conditioners are rolling into the market ready to plug-and-play with the consumer voice assistant of choice (think Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri or Google Assistant) and be easily operated by voice or remotely by smartphone by their user.
And that progress toward interconnectivity and broad consumer choice is not appearing in the market by accident, as the segment as a whole has been moving toward building a more collaborative infrastructure for about a year, even as the competition for consumer interest remains fierce.
Even in a pre-COVID-19 world, the rising prominence of connected tech in homes was becoming apparent, as was the growing importance of some level of interoperability, particularly in regards to security. That is why, as of last December, Amazon, Google, Apple and the Zigbee Alliance (composed of IKEA, Samsung SmartThings and Silicon Labs) announced intentions to work collaboratively to create and promote the adoption of a new royalty-free connectivity standard to make smart home products more compatible.
“The decision to leverage these technologies is expected to accelerate the development of the protocol and deliver benefits to manufacturers and consumers faster,” said the Project Connected Home announcement.
According to the announcement, the aim of the project is to enable communication across smart home devices, mobile apps, and cloud services — and to define a specific set of IP-based networking technologies for device certification to make smart home devices seamless, reliable and secure for their user.
And those users are getting more choice — in how they construct their smart homes, what elements they feel they need to include, the order in which they acquire their devices — without necessarily having to commit themselves to one brand or path of integration.
Which is not to say there isn’t a very avid competition to be the driving force in that brings all those smart devices under a single umbrella as the cloud-based core — as Amazon so clearly underlined during its last big product release event.
The Connected Home Takes Center Stage
To say Amazon’s push to control the smart home of the future dominated its last product event entirely would be a bit of an overstatement — as always, there were a whole lot of things gong on. But to merely say that the smart home took center stage would be putting it pretty mildly — from an entirely redesigned line of smart speakers, to the many efforts to make Alexa that much smarter and more helpful, to the flying drones securing the households of the future — the fact that Amazon is attempting to build a helpful product for all emerging varieties of smart home customers out there is pretty apparent.
Among the more notable upgrades is the simple fact that Alexa is slated to become a better conversationalist, about to engage in a back and forth “conversation” with users instead of needing to be asking continual questions. Alexa is also getting more intuitive, with the integration of a new feature called “hunches” where Alexa suggests an activity that might be useful that it can do — like, for example, locking the front door or switching off the lights. Alexa is also upgrading its capacity to recognize whom it is speaking to, and to adjust its realm of responses when it is talking to, for example, a child.
The latest round of Amazon Smart Home upgrades also included a heavy focus on security, including a $4.99 a month subscription service called Alexa Guard Plus that includes more robust security monitoring, complete with a new sound sensor system. The system will also allow Alexa to take action, such as playing the sounds of dogs barking if it perceives a security threat. The flashiest home security upgrade by far is the Ring Always Home Cam, a little drone-mounted camera that patrols the halls of one’s home to make sure that thieves haven’t infiltrated when homeowners are away.
The $250 floating sentry will fly a programmed path, staying out of rooms where it’s not wanted, and even land itself on a charger when it knows it needs a battery boost.
And Amazon has been far from alone in upgrading its speaker —Google, its nearest U.S. competitor in the market with its Nest/Home line of devices, in the last half year has improved its speakers’ sound quality, improved its success rate and understanding of human language, upgraded its Next Hub devices so that it can track users’ eye movements while it’s in use, and upgraded the number of customized automated routines users can set using their Next Hub device.
And, as Prime Day kicks into gear this week on October 13th, Google’s new gear will go head-to-head with Amazon’s upgraded line of smart hardware for the first time during the 2020 shopping season — Amazon will sell its goods from its own site and Walmart will be pushing Google’s new items on sale in their counter programming to Prime Day sale this week.
Which own will come out ahead this week and during the holiday shopping season as a whole?
Well, that Amazon will likely win Prime Day seems one of the few safe bets to make in 2020 — but beyond that? Hard to say, other than Alexa has historically led this race in the U.S. But what seems clear is that this year consumers, incredibly bent on home improvement projects, seem unusually primed for smart home purchases.
Which means the smart home race will likely be a race worth watching as more data emerges.