“Smart” homes are dumb.

UPDATE (11/16/2017): Steven Aquino provides a helpful reminder: smart home devices provide accessibility benefits that easily outweigh the finicky quibbles I raise below:

Smart devices are all the rage. You can buy an internet-connected version of nearly every home appliance and gadget: light switches that respond to your digital assistant’s commands. Shades that automatically open or close, depending on the weather forecast. Power outlets that switch on your lamp as you pull into the driveway. Light bulbs that match their color to what’s on your TV screen. Thermostats that lower the temperature when you leave the house. Deadbolts that unlock when your phone draws near.

Gadgets like these are fun; I’d love to play with some smart bulbs or a robot vacuum at some point down the road.

But beyond that? I don’t really understand why anyone would install a semi-permanent smart device in their house.

On the one hand, there’s the “faux-convenience” factor. With many smart home gadgets, you’re trading a device that’s simplistic but predictable for one that’s “advanced” but finicky. Consider: if a dumb light switch stops working, there’s a very limited number of things that could have gone wrong—basically, either the wiring came loose or the circuit breaker blew.

But with a smart light switch, you have those potential problems, plus many others. Maybe the device’s firmware is buggy. Maybe the manufacturer hasn’t updated their app for your new phone hardware. Maybe the smart home platform itself is half-baked. Maybe the trigger service (e.g. IFTTT) is offline. Perhaps the automation you programmed failed to anticipate the fall time change. The list of potential troubleshooting steps goes on and on.

You may be just nerdy enough to enjoy debugging your house. More power to you. But do the other residents of your home feel the same way? Chances are, your roommates, significant other, guests, or kids would prefer that things just work. What happens when you’re away for the night and your spouse can’t turn on the lights? You’ve basically extended the problem of over-complicated home theater set-ups to your entire house.

And what happens when you try to sell your “smart home”? Most buyers won’t be interested in inheriting your complex network of domestic devices. They may not share your penchant for tinkering, and they may view your smart gadgets as a maintenance nightmare, rather than an automation dream.

Even if you plan to stay in your current house forever, you face the problem of longevity. It’s not unusual for “dumb” devices to last for decades—even generations. When’s the last time a manual light switch or doorknob in your house just stopped working?

A smart device is a ticking time bomb. It’s only a matter of time until the a) heat, dust and age render the unit inoperable or b) the device is deprecated by the manufacturer or the home hub vendor. An innocuous-looking app update could render your light switches inoperable. By installing smart devices, you’ve condemned yourself to upgrading the unit every decade (if not more frequently).

Computer miniaturization has led to remarkable quality-of-life improvements. A smart phone is infinitely more capable than the spiral-corded kitchen handset I grew up with. But that doesn’t mean that every device in my house deserves its own CPU. For basic home operations, rock-solid reliability is the only feature that matters. [Edit: that may be true for me, but not for everyone. See preface above.] Give me basic functionality over whiz-bang capability—at least when it comes to flicking on the lights. ■

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‘It looks cold out there.’

Jason Snell, outlining his efforts to program the smart lightbulbs installed outside his house:

I decided to experiment with whether I could have my weather station turn my outside lights blue if the temperature got near freezing.

With Jason’s clever setup, you’d know at a glance whether to grab the winter coat, bring in the pets, and cover the plants. But why stop there? After all, there are plenty of colors in the rainbow! Here are a few more smart lightbulb “weather recipes”:

  • White / blue rotation: snow! You could even tweak the timing based on storm intensity. A gradual shift might signal gentle flurries, but a driving blizzard would color-cycle faster.
  • Green: rain. No, raindrops aren’t green. But that’s how radar maps show precipitation, so the association makes sense to me. Plus, water helps green plants grow, right? Work with me here.
  • Pulsing white: foggy / cloudy. I’m not sure whether Jason’s bulbs can be dimmed, but the Philips Hue apparently can—and it has a similarly useful API.
  • Yellow to red: heat scale. Choose a minimum “warm” threshold for yellow, then slide up the chromatic scale toward red as the temperature rises. This could prove particularly helpful for dog owners: a visual reminder that it’s dangerous to keep the pup outside.
  • White with gentle purple flashes: storm warning. Why purple? On many radar maps, purple represents extremely heavy precipitation. Also, lightning can make clouds glow deep violet. Finally and more practically, there aren’t many distinct colors left!

As Jason’s post proves, setting this all up requires some finicky fiddling. For example, you’d need to decide whether your bulbs would reflect the current conditions or the upcoming forecast. You’d also want to customize the temperature thresholds; what’s “hot” for some people is “comfortably toasty” for others. And you’d want to tweak and test until the pulsing indicators were subtle rather than distracting.

So… yes, there’s some nerdy work involved here, But if you’re like me, this sounds like fun nerdy work. Thanks to IFTTT, the build would require very little (if any) programming experience.

Plus, it’s the kind of “nerdy work” that anyone can appreciate; even technophobe neighbors might enjoy your whole-house weather monitor. You could even share your perfected recipes on IFTTT for others to appreciate.