According to the Consumer Electronics Association, the top five consumer electronics market trends of the burgeoning consumer electronics market was are health and biotech, lifestyle tech, smart home, and “wearables” at an estimated $287 billion in 2016. While a potential bonanza for an industry that struggles to reincarnate itself every few years, as each device generation morphs into a commodity, this new crop of devices suffers from the same market risks as all new generation consumer electronics dripping new features; namely, will consumers care and buy, or will these devices miss the mark, and go to technology’s trash heap of misplaced creativity. As the recent Sunday NYT Magazine cover story “Makeover Mania” pointed out, while “human desire to solve problems fuels brand-new inventions, too,” redesigns “fail when they address the wrong problem—or something that really wasn’t a problem in the first place. While progress may entail change, change doesn’t necessarily guarantee progress.”
Every consumer electronics marketer will talk for hours about how once-in-a-generation devices, like the Walkman or iPod, have “glow”, or the ability to make average users feel like they are handling a Promethean gift. These coveted devices, and the people who design them, are creating aspirational objects that extend what should be everyday objects into a new lifestyle dimension.
But then there are everyday objects like smart lightbulbs, learning thermostats, and Android-based washing machines that, while they may be game changers in other areas, are designed to be forgotten. For example, Nest’s recent announcement of multicolored thermostats is a cry for attention that will fall flat; people simply don’t care as long as the device is not hideous.
Similarly, Jetsons-themed networked washing machines and fridges are pointless, unless they can do your laundry without you lifting a finger, or actually buy groceries for you, or tell you that you should eat less. Even then, who needs another voice in the home bawling you out for a poor lifestyle. Like good Victorian children, and unlike a rose gold iPhone, these devices should be seen and not heard.
Consumers today are in device overload; every device in their life is starting to talk, and listen; and whether it’s dumb and snarky Siri, or nosy Google or too-eager-to-assist Alexa, people often feel like they’ve invited unwanted guests into their lives. We’re surrounded by objects that cry “We’re from the future and here to help you,” when in fact, they’re shills for platform providers who want to grub your behavioral data and lock you into their “ecosystems.”
Unlike with digital media, or mobile telephony, the notion that a given home will be locked into one ecosystem is specious. While it’s easy to see an Apple user loving the convenience of a one stop world where music, video, photos and the like all interoperate cleanly, it’s very hard to see an entire home IoT system being controlled by a single platform technology. There are simply too many devices, too many roles and too many device makers for any one person to care about making a religious commitment to any one platform.
Additionally, a typical consumer buying a smart lightbulb, just wants it to light a room when they flip a switch; they really don’t care that it belongs to the Amazon ecosystem and that it changes color to suit their mood. While early adopters and impulse buyers may get taken by gimmicks, soon after the purchase, these funky features will be ignored and forgotten. Invariably, these devices will pledge allegiance to a given ecosystem provider, but the net result will be that part of a home will speak Alexa, part will speak Siri (God help us) and part will speak Google, and people will either totally ignore the network functions , or live in a babel like chaos of competing ecosystems.
In the end, we will all be left with over-designed devices being used as they were meant to be used in 1955, or will be running around the house with smartphone in one hand and laundry in the other screaming words like “OK, Google” and “Hey Siri” in between “do your homework” and “Calgon, Take me Away” to the humans at home.
The early phase of market development is often self-organizing, marked by deployment of absurd features, and the generation of consumer confusion. Where in truth, the path to victory is paved with minimalism. Rather than trying to breathe life into inert objects, designers should focus on making these things be mute and functional. By all means, make them beautiful, but there is such a thing as recognizing that making a thermostat learn as much as a search engine is like trying to train your dog to sing opera. Part of the aforementioned design minimalism involves making stuff work well together. A consumer is going to want their home devices to work the same way without being confronted with a religious decision. That means that ecosystem developers need to work together to develop standards for interoperability, and rely on good old fashioned consumer electronics marketing techniques to compete, rather than gotcha tactics aimed at locking you into their world. There are ways to rationalize all of this and create a win-win for all – it starts with making home IoT devices do just what they need to, not more, figuring out a cross platform way to make things work smoothly across silos, and for all of this minimal functionality to just work. The alternative is that the engineers and marketers designing these devices will fall in love with the voices in their heads to the point that they create a byzantine generation of devices that no one will understand or buy.