I was somewhere around the smart fridges in the middle of Central Hall when the sizzle began to take hold.
It was Thursday afternoon, towards the end of my last day of patrolling CES' two square miles of floor space, and I had already given up on finding innovation among the millions of consumer electronics I'd been looking at since the beginning of the week. This afternoon I was on a mission: I was going to find all of the show's "smart" appliances (putting air quotes around smart every time I even thought the word), be they refrigerators or washing machines or stovetops. I was going to fully explore the absurdity of their features, see if there was one single thing that made Samsung's "smart" products stand out from LG's and vice versa, and point out how needless and useless and on the whole not-smart-at-all these appliances really were.
And then something happened. I started to want one.
It was Samsung's washing machine that got me. There was a touch screen on it, which I didn't care about at first. Buttons and knobs work just fine. But I started tapping on the oversized icons, checking out what the washing machine could do besides wash clothes. And I realized that it could tell me how to wash clothes, because Samsung baked in a helpful little guidebook for treating different types of stains and what temperatures to use for different fabrics. I could find that information online with my smartphone in just a few minutes, but it was curated on that colorful LCD in a reliable way I couldn't find on Yahoo! Answers.
Here it was--that one idea that washed away the cynicism, leaving me sheepishly optimistic and ready to jump on board the smart spin cycle. As Erik Charlton of Nest Labs would put it on the phone, a week and a half later, I had fallen for the sizzle.
Rethinking the Connected Home
The day before Samsung's gimmick suckered me in, I went to a CES talk titled "Connected Lifestyle Hit Parade: Winning Products and Apps." This, I figured, would offer up a good overview of all the "smart" appliances worthy of ridicule.
It wasn't quite what I expected. One of the panel's first talking points came from Charlton, Nest's VP of Sales and Marketing. Nest, you may recall, launched a learning thermostat in late 2011, and sold several hundred thousands units before launching a 2.0 version a few months ago. Nest may be the most successful "smart" device for the home currently on the market, so Charlton grabbed my attention when he led off with this statement:
"We fundamentally don't believe in the connected home."
Huh? But wasn't this panel all about the connected home? Weren't these panelists from Nest, Qualcomm Labs, AT&T and Motorola supposed to be extolling the virtues of the smart fridge that can tweet? I expected shilling and got, instead, a well-reasoned look at the connected products that exist now and the challenges of networking them together. But it was that first statement that set the tone for the panel, and as Charlton elaborated on his point, I started to get a feel for the dividing line between "smart" and smart.
Nest isn't interested in selling people a set of interoperating devices.
"It seems like an inevitable promise that everything's going to work together," he continued. "We think this abstract notion of connected home is enormously challenging. I think there are ideas that are interesting over time that will emerge, [but it's] difficult for a consumer to wrap their head around these abstract notions."
Charlton went on to state that Nest believes in connected products, or rather product, that they're not interested in selling people a set of interoperating devices, just one thing that does its thing better than any other thing on the market.
When we talked on the phone a week and a half after CES, Charlton expanded on his views of the connected home. He admitted, with a laugh, that he'd been trying to liven up the talk with a contrarian viewpoint. He does believe in the connected home--sort of. "[There's a] vision of things being streamlined and integrated, and I like that," he said. But he sees that coming 10 or 15 years down the road, not sooner.
Where does that leave the connected home of 2012? Disconnected, more or less. But the panelists, and Charlton especially, challenged the notion that that was such a bad thing.
Maybe we don't want one box for everything.
"When I look around my house, I see a lot of different devices connected to different things, a lot of stuff connected to the power system," said Peter Marx of Qualcomm Labs. "I have no idea how much they're using. I have a lot of devices connected to the Internet. I have devices connected through systems that are not interconnected and not available to me through any coherent or coordinated set of interfaces that I can control...that feels to me like maybe we don't want one box for everything."
Everyone assumes the answer is an app. This is the connected home as it's been pitched to us: a single app that lets you turn your lights on, and set the temperature, and control your electronics system. One smart home, one smart app. Charlton argued that we have an even better model: the smartphone. Just as he believes in the Nest as a singular product, he sees the apps for these different services as separate entities--not a singular catch-all app.
Would more consistency between user interfaces be better? Undoubtedly. But would one single app for controlling your Samsung washer/dryer/TV/light bulb/thermostat ecosystem really be much better than a folder of apps on an iPhone screen? I'm not so sure. What separates an okay user experience from a great one is that extra mile of thought and polish few developers put into their apps, and as long as we view the connected home as one entity instead of a composite of multiple services, the individual pieces won't get the attention they deserve.
"Apps are built by engineers, and quite frankly in order to do a good interface on an app requires a good deal of effort," said Marx. "The Nest interface is beautiful, sophisticated. It took a lot of time, [didn't it?]" Charlton agreed emphatically.
Why, then, is there this drive for interconnected devices? Is it even warranted? Marx says it's about innovation. "We don't necessarily need to interconnect with your thermostat," he told Charlton. "We want to lower the barrier to doing these systems so more people can do these services and [make the] experience more affordable. We'd like to see more innovation...to drive demand for services and devices."
The answer could be ZigBee, which is probably the most successful wireless standard for interconnected devices currently on the market. But it's unlikely that all the big players in the home electronics space will want to work towards unification in the near future--they'd rather sell you the whole package. That brings us back to the "smart" appliances Samsung, LG and Haier so cheerfully showed off at CES. The connected home talk left me more interested and open-minded, but still unsure that these products deserved to be called "smart."
24 hours later, as I tapped through the icons on that Samsung washing machine, I still wasn't sure. But I got caught up in the gimmick. This shining mass of black and silver was slightly more convenient, and definitely flashier, than the washing machine I've got at home. But that doesn't make it a bold new take on washing clothes--it makes it an upsell. Charlton called that touchscreen the sizzle, which, when you get down to it, is all these "smart" products are selling. They've got the sizzle, but they don't have the steak.
What's in a word? Searching for meaning in the world of Smart
"I think 'smart' is coming to mean what those companies are creating," Charlton said over the phone. "They're putting meaning into that word smart...They've taken a neat word, and the experience they're creating is now the meaning of that word."
"Smart" as a branding term is like a twisted version of Marshall McLuhan's "the medium is the message," implying that these devices are, in some way, intelligent. The gimmick isn't what should define a "smart" product, because it's mostly just there to grab your attention or let Samsung charge an extra couple hundred bucks for a machine that is otherwise nearly identical.
Nest shrewdly sidestepped that shallow branding with the "learning" (not smart!) thermostat. The Nest's ability to collect data and change its behavior based on everyday usage fundamentally alters the thermostat experience, but that's only half of what makes it an important step forward for machine learning in the home. Nest's justification for a $250 price tag is that the self-programming thermostat will save 20 percent on heating/cooling costs, for an average of $173 per year.
"[Companies are] using 'smart,' but they mean 'connected,' Charlton said. "They're trying to enhance that value proposition, trying to add a little sizzle instead of addressing the core problem."
What's the core problem? It's different for every device, which is why adding Twitter or Facebook or a weather report to a refrigerator rings so hollow. Gimmicks are painkillers, not wonder drugs. And Samsung and LG, though they make very functional, very pretty appliances, probably won't be the ones to reimagine the products we use every day in life-changing ways, because they have too much money wrapped up in iteration and little drive to make bold moves.
"I want to see the refrigerator that says "oh my god, I gotta have that" or the washing machine," Charlton added excitedly. I think that we came in [with the Nest] and just looked at the whole problem and dissected it all apart. Those teams need to look at those problems and tear them all apart."
The defining element of the refrigerator might be storage space, for example, and only by breaking down the standardized makeup of drawers and shelves will the glory of the smart fridge be realized. Charlton cited the Philips Hue as an up-and-coming product that offers something new and exciting beyond an Internet connection. Focusing on dramatic energy savings, rather than making a brief mention of Energy Star certification, would likewise be a huge justification for "smart" devices.
A Samsung rep laughed when I asked if it could play Angry Birds. We'll see if the answer to that question is still a "no" in 2014.
I asked a Samsung rep at CES to tell me what "smart" meant for their products. "It's all about interactivity and expanding the user experience from something that's mundane and trivial to something that's a little more fun, a little more engaging," he said. It's not a bad goal, but it's not one that will see Samsung reinvent the refrigerator, either.
He laughed when I asked if it could play Angry Birds. We'll see if the answer to that question is still a "no" in 2014.
I think we'll start to see more home electronics follow in the Nest's footsteps in the next decade. And they'll probably come from startups looking to sell products, not big companies selling ecosystems.
On the panel, Nate Williams, a connected home executive at Motorola, said "the quality of the engineer writing code in this sector five years ago was relatively low. As this has become more mainstream, we're starting to see a higher quality of engineers. We're seeing some of the best and brightest in the Valley who really want to solve these problems. They're doing Pebble Watch, Jawbone, Fitbit...24-36 months ago, we saw great engineers leaving Google, Apple, starting companies. You don't know their names yet because they're still in stealth mode."
There are exciting technologies like NFC and RFID and all sorts of sensors that could eventually grant our appliances real smarts, but it will take better engineering minds than mine to turn those into real products. I'm still thinking about that washing machine and its seductive cleaning tips, but I no longer want one. I've moved on to the dream of a learning (and talking--why not?) toaster oven, so that my bagels may never be burned again.