Phil de Terlizzi likens today’s rapid proliferation of smartphone apps to the widespread use of remote controls for TVs and cable boxes that still clutter many coffee tables more than 65 years after the first ones hit the market.
As consumers have an increasingly bewildering number of choices of “smart” devices for the home, they are faced with a fundamental decision — install them on a do-it-yourself basis and deal with the challenges of integrating them, or hire an installer offering a holistic system like Control4, Crestron, Savant or AMX, the latter owned by Stamford-based Harman International Industries.
“The smartphone opened up the whole gamut,” said de Terlizzi, director of marketing and sales at County TV & Appliance, which in 2014 won an award from the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Fairfield County for its “smart home” showroom in Stamford. “We have a lot of people who we educate that have been longtime customers of ours. As their homes and needs evolve, they come in here.”
Internet-enabled devices are flooding onto the shelves of home goods retailers and contractors faster than even devotees of Popular Mechanics or Wired can keep up. Upstarts like Nest Labs and DropCam (both now owned by Google), Hue and WeMo are elbowing onto shelves and end caps alongside household brand heavyweights like Fairfield-based General Electric, Honeywell or First Alert.
“There’s a reason you pay extra to (install) things like that — it’s all tying back to how stable and enterprise-grade it is,” said Kevin Vallerie, owner of Untangled, a connected-home integration company in Wilton that installs Control4. “Especially the larger homes we deal with … people say, `I don’t want to have to constantly be calling for service — let’s do it right the first time.'”
`Milky Weigh’ and beyond
Gartner Inc., a Stamford-based company that analyzes high-tech trends, estimates that the affluent could have 500 connected devices in their homes within seven years, from the smartphones that proliferate today to any number of devices. Internet-enabled devices are emerging not just in game consoles and TVs, but increasingly appliances such as washing machines, vehicles, security controls, medical and fitness equipment and, now, wristwatches.
If you can plug it into a wall outlet or battery charger, then you can plug it into the Internet for remote or automated control, reasons Nick Jones, a vice president with Gartner.
“We expect that a very wide range of domestic equipment will become `smart’ in the sense of gaining some level of sensing and intelligence combined with the ability to communicate, usually wirelessly,” Jones stated in a Gartner report on the trend. “More sophisticated devices will include both sensing and remote control functions. Price will seldom be an inhibitor because the cost of … enabling a consumer `thing’ will approach $1 in the long term.”
Makers of home appliances are fast responding, most notably General Electric, which has unveiled several new products at its GE Appliances division in Louisville, Ky. — even as it readies to divest the division to Electrolux. Jarden, which relocated its corporate offices from New York to Norwalk this year under CEO and Wilton resident Jim Lillie, received “show stopper” awards at the January Consumer Electronics Show for its Onelink system to control its First Alert smoke detectors, thermostats and other devices.
Also launching a product at CES was Avon-based iDevices, which this month plans to release additional details on Switch, a gadget allowing one to control a wide range of Internet-enabled gizmos in the home, to include lights, fans and humidifiers.
In February, iDevices disclosed $15 million in venture funding, with investors including Allegion (NYSE: ALLE) and Connecticut Innovations, a state-backed venture fund in Rocky Hill. From its 2010 launch with the iGrill to gauge cooking temperatures, iDevices has grown to 60 employees today producing the water resistant audio speaker iShower; and the iBeacon, a device that can send messages like store promotions when customers come within 150 feet of the unit.
For GE’s part, via its FirstBuild partnership with Local Motors, GE Appliances has created the GE ChillHub, a “smart” refrigerator that can be controlled through a WiFi connection or USB hubs, allowing for remote control of refrigerator elements like temperature. GE ChillHub can be installed with a scale called “Milky Weigh” that pings people when they are running low on milk. GE and FirstBuild envision several other fridge functions, to include a butter softener compartment, a deodorizer, an auto-fill water pitcher and voice control capabilities.
Everything is smart
If going to the extreme, it reflects an environment in which some people want to see how much of their lives they can control from their smartphones. In a survey of Coldwell Banker real estate agents published in March, 60 percent say they are seeing more homes listed for sale today with “smart” or connected technologies than they did two to five years earlier. Security was the top application for smart-home technology followed by temperature control; safety devices like smoke alarms; and lighting.
Toll Brothers, a Pennsylvania-based builder whose Rivington development in Danbury is among the largest underway in Connecticut, has been using Control4 in model homes at select sites across the country. In a Thursday conference call, Control4 CEO Martin Plaehn said Toll Brothers has credited the system with spurring sales.
“We’re in quite a few (Toll Brothers) communities and we have a good number of dealers that are doing installations,” Plaehn said. “As an overall proportion of number of homes that are Toll Brothers relative to all Control4 homes, it’s still a small number, but it is contributing, it is working and we deem it important.”
Deterrents remain — most predominantly, the fact that people have been able to live their lives happily enough without every contraption linked to a smartphone. But cost, complexity, security and the potential for glitches is also on the mind of consumers.
In mid-April, the New York City-based startup Quirky reported a total shutdown in service for its Wink “connected home” app that can control appliances from GE and other companies, with the product sold at Home Depot, Target and other big-box retailers. Quirky informed customers that the problem stemmed from some household Wink hubs being unable to connect to the company’s servers due to security upgrades.
“So Wink made its software too secure and bricked its own hardware,” wrote Adam Clark Estes, a writer for the tech website Gizmodo who has chronicled his efforts to convert his New York City apartment using Wink and appliances from GE and other companies. “Cool.”
If technical hiccups are in store for the smart home, De Terlizzi and Vallerie say they are seeing an exponential increase in interest this year as new products find their way into the hands of neighbors and coworkers, and people get increasingly comfortable with the concept of the smart home.
“We’re there — we’re really at the point where everything everybody is buying now is smart,” Vallerie said. “Every piece of technology that is on the market has some form of integrated capabilities — now it’s just how long until people realize that it is not the big scary monster they think it might be.”
Alex.Soule@scni.com; 203-964-2236; www.twitter.com/casoulman