Have we reached “peak smart home” already?

Before we dive into the real meat of this article, I want to talk about e-readers. It will make sense in a little while.

Although I saw my first e-reader in about 2003, the product didn’t really start to take off until Amazon revealed its first-generation Kindle. For a little while, everyone was talking about e-readers. They were fairly cheap, went forever on a charge, and gave you access to hundreds of books instantly. They looked like they would take over the world.

And then, they didn’t.

Blame phones with bigger screens. Blame the fact that people still don’t read books even in an electronic package. Blame Amazon’s domination over the market, which stopped competitors from thriving. However you want to do it, whatever you want to blame, the e-reader revolution was basically over by about 2013. Today Amazon sells about the only one, unless you count reading apps for phones and tablets. It’s rare that the e-reader space generates excitement, and it’s just not something we talk about on this blog.

In other words, “peak e-reader” came pretty fast. Everyone who wanted one got one, the feature set got mature quickly, and people moved on to the next cool thing.

Are smart home devices headed in the same direction as e-readers?

It’s very easy to draw parallels between e-readers and smart home devices. Both are driven by Amazon and one other entity (Barnes&Noble in the case of e-readers, Google in the case of smart home devices.) Both technologies have seen a flood of interesting ideas come very quickly, but have seen the real interest settle into just a few devices. And, both technologies have seen a drop in price that can only come from flagging demand. Or is that even fair to say?

How smart home devices aren’t like e-readers

E-readers as a market segment suffered from Amazon’s closed market mentality. They own the bookstore, they make the devices. You can use their free app on other devices, but if you’re looking for a dedicated reader, your choice today is pretty much Amazon or the highway. In my opinion this was a mistake for the segment. I would have rather seen Amazon open up the Kindle device to other stores. I understand why they didn’t, though. If you want choice you can run the Kindle and Nook apps, plus any other apps you want, from any cheap tablet. They felt like they didn’t need to jumpstart collaboration. However, their “walled garden” approach (to take a term from Apple) stopped the whole reader segment from growing and I think that’s a shame.

Someone at Amazon may agree with me. Amazon has opened up Alexa skills and Alexa compatibility to a whole range of manufacturers. You can get everything from light bulbs to security systems, and all of them work with Alexa. You don’t even have to shop at Amazon to find Alexa-compatible smart home products. What’s more important is that the same devices can be configured to work with Alexa or its competition, the Google Assistant. Some even work with Apple’s HomeKit, the perennial third-place finisher in this two-person race.

Very few devices will work with Alexa and Google Assistant at the same time, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you don’t have to tear out every outlet in your home if you change teams. You might have to open up the outlet cover and press a reset button, but that’s about it.

We have not reached peak smart home

I will say that we are moving into a mature phase with smart home devices. You’re not seeing as many wacky ones. You’re not seeing that Alexa enabled dog bowl, for example. However what you are seeing is a move to home automation that makes sense. The light bulbs and outlets are getting so cheap that it doesn’t make sense to use “dumb” ones. You’re starting to see that we’re using Alexa for things that we want, and ignoring Alexa integration on things we don’t. I think that’s a good thing, and I have confidence that smart home products will be around for a long time to come.