samsung smart home presentation

At CES 2015, smart home products were everywhere. With Apple’s new “HomeKit” system and Google’s acquisition of Nest, smart home products are becoming more mainstream than ever.

But we’ve been hearing about “smart homes” and home automation for decades. Products are now becoming more inexpensive and easier to use, so maybe we are getting somewhere.

Smart Home 101

RELATED: What is the Internet Of Things?

Some people use the term “the connected home” instead of “the smart home,” and “home automation” is a closely linked concept. These days, it’s also under the umbrella of “the Internet of Things,” which refers to putting more and more devices on the Internet. And yes, there are serious security implications here that we absolutely should be thinking of.

A “smart home” is a vision that’s been around since The Jetsons — and earlier. It’s a vision of a home in which the appliances and objects are smarter. Picture the door automatically unlocking for you as you get home, the lights turning on as you walk in, everything turning off as you walk out, and more.

In a concrete sense, there are now a lot of products that can make these things happen. There are Bluetooth-enabled locks controlled by your phone and Wi-Fi-enabled lights that can turn on or off as you come and go. There are thermostats that can intelligently control your home’s heating at certain hours of the day (like the Nest thermostat) and security cameras you can view over the Internet to help secure your home. And yes, there are many devices you can connect to over the Internet and control with an app, from slow cookers to light bulbs.

The Smart Home Now Starts With a Product, Not a Hub

One challenge for the smart home is establishing a “hub.” This is one major device that connects everything in the smart home together, allowing you to control everything in one place. It also makes automation possible, allowing devices to communicate with each other.

Traditionally, someone who wanted to create a smart home would need to make a big decision, buying into a home automation communication standard like X10, developed in 1975. This system transmits signals over power lines in the home, allowing light switches and various other devices to communicate. It would require some sort of hub to control everything.

New “smart home” products are different and have been for a few years. You can buy a Nest thermostat for a few hundred bucks, swapping it out for your current thermostat and getting a smart, Wi-Fi-enabled thermostat. You could just stop there, if you like — no need to buy into a thermostat and replace a massive number of products.

You could pick up other things, too — for example, Wi-Fi-enabled lightbulbs like the popular Phillips Hue ones so you can control them from your phone and change the color of the light. You can mix and match various products, buying just the things you’re interested in and assembling your “smart home” piecemeal over a period of time.

The Smartphone is the Real Smart Home Hub

Just as before, we still need a single place to control all the “smart home” devices. That single place is now the smartphone. No matter what smart home device you buy, there should be iPhone and Android apps to control that device from your phone. Your phone becomes the device that controls your thermostat, light bulbs, and slow cooker, the place you look to check the live feed from your home security camera and check in on everything else.

The problem is now more of a software problem — people don’t really want to have 20 different apps on their smartphone to control all their devices. But the fact that these smart home products connect wirelessly via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to a single device is still progress.

The Future: More Products, More Integration

RELATED: Wearables 101: What They Are, and Why You'll Be Seeing a Lot of Them

At CES 2015, it was hard to move without stumbling over a variety of smart home products. In fact, Samsung promised every single one of their products would be Internet-enabled within five years — and 90 percent of them would be Internet-enabled by 2017. Samsung doesn’t just make smartphones and TVs — they make a lot of appliances. As with wearables, the hardware is becoming inexpensive and commoditized.

Different companies want to link all this hardware together. Apple’s HomeKit is probably the most visible attempt, with a lot of manufacturer support at CES 2015. Apple wants to create an interface so devices from various manufacturers can work together and be controlled in a standard way — at least if you own an Apple product.

Google’s Nest — who made the popular Nest thermostat before being purchased by Google — have also announced a “Works With Nest” system to help devices work better together. Other companies at CES 2015 were also pushing “one platform to rule them all” so you won’t need 20 different apps for all your devices. Samsung’s “SmartThings” platform is also designed to be an open platform devices can plug into. Belkin’s WeMo platform is already out there today and more devices are integrating with it.

So where does that leave us? Well, “the battle for the smart home is heating up!” as some websites write. More and more smart home devices are being released, and they’ll work pretty well without an overarching platform. But companies are positioning to be that overarching platform, too.

You can turn your home into a smart home today, but you’ll probably gradually replace individual items in your home with “smart” products you like. And, as technology continues to advance, even people not looking to build a smart home will probably end up with Wi-Fi-enabled appliances and other “smart home” products.

Image Credit: CODE_n on Flickr, Brendan C on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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