The year I started college (1979), we were shown a film in my CS101 class that was called, “The Smart Home.” It depicted the future of home automation, showcasing a fully automated house that was akin to that of the Jetsons.Thirty years later, I consider the smartening of my home.
There have been drastic innovation in home computing, audio-visual entertainment, and telephony. Digital gaming has gone from Pong to Wii. There have been some advances in home appliances, though many of these “improvements” seem to have shortened the lifespan of the appliance in question (seems like refrigerators die far sooner than they used to). On the technology management front, there is lighting control, automated garage doors, complex security systems, programmable devices of all sorts from DVRs and coffeemakers. In higher-end homes, there’s a lot more of both technology and control . A friend of mine has one unified control system that almost enables him to simulate “The Smart Home” video I remember. Unfortunately, this degree of home automation requires that he have an IT person at his beckon call since the system is so complicated and finicky that it never seems to work right. Which brings me to my point.
Three decades ago, “The Smart Home” video promised me a home where technology simplified my life—where seamless automation quietly whirred and beeped, resulting in a self-contained home that promoted calm and relaxation. I don’t know a single person who would say that their home technology promotes such an idyllic environment. Conversely, we spent far more time worrying about the technology in our homes than we used to. Part of the reason is that while our digital home technologies have grown vastly smarter, the installation, integration and maintenance of these technologies haven’t advanced nearly as far. The result is that our homes are not smart in the traditional sense. They are more autistic—extremely smart in various disciplines but difficult to manage because of poor integration skills.
Maybe we truly are on the brink of digital home convergence, but more likely, we will continue to innovate the disparate technologies within our homes at a faster pace than we are able to resolve the seamless interoperation of these technologies. Our homes will grow more and more autistic and we’ll need more and more help to manage them effectively. Just ten years ago the concept of paying someone for home IT support was ludicrous—you bought a service or gadget and you installed it yourself. If you had problems, you called the manufacturer or service provider for free customer service. Not anymore. One analyst reports that in 2009, the growing market of home IT support tipped the scale at $11 billion of revenue this year—a number that according to them, should have been more like $19 billion if the market weren’t underserved. Until we address the loosely integrated autism of our digital homes and home networking becomes as systemically “smart” as electricity, I predict this number will continue to rise.