Smart-Home Wars: Big Opportunity, Bigger Hurdles

The battle to control your home has begun in earnest, but will shoppers finally bite?

Staples and Home Depot, two companies not necessarily known for their expertise in consumer electronics, have both launched efforts to sell smart home devices, ranging from light bulbs to door locks to air conditioners. Why now? There are four good reasons:

1. Smart home is a category that's due to explode; it's predicted to reach $100 billion in total revenue by 2018, according to market research firm Strategy Analytics.

2. Both Apple and Google are getting into the smart home market: Apple is set to debut its HomeKit for iOS 8 (a new common protocol for smart home devices), and Google acquired Nest, a provider of smart thermostats and smoke detectors.

3. The price of connected devices is dropping so quickly that they cost barely more than their nonconnected counterparts. For example, GE's new smart LED light bulbs cost just $15 each.

4. Smart home devices are becoming increasingly easy to install and use. In the past, home automation systems cost thousands of dollars and required a technician to wire your house with a custom interface. If it used wireless communications, it was usually limited to a single technology, such as ZigBee or Z-Wave. Now, you just plug in a device or two, download an app, and control everything from your phone.

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But there's still a massive hurdle to get over. While techies like me should easily grasp the idea of using a hub to connect all my smart home appliances, Bob and Betty Best Buy are going to say, "I can control what with my phone? Which light bulbs can I use? And why would I want to do that?"

It will all come down to providing discrete scenarios. For forgetful people like me, the ability to set your thermostat to Away Mode — after you've left the house — is a tangible, and easily understood, benefit. Just the other week, I had to go back to my apartment after leaving for work to check that I had turned off the lights.

The other key for any company selling one of these hubs is to sign up as many appliance makers as possible, as quickly as possible. At its event, Staples announced 35 partners and 150 devices, and Home Depot announced 15 partners and 60 products.

That's a good start, and there's some real tech cred behind both hubs: Staples' $49 hub is made by Linksys, and Home Depot's hub (also $49) is made by Wink, an offshoot of technology incubator Quirky. In a smart move, Home Depot is practically giving away its hub if you purchase two connected devices, as a cost-effective way for the company to dip its toes in the category.

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The smartest hubs won't even require you to interact with your phone to control your appliances. With Staples' device, for example, when you enter Sleep Mode on a Jawbone UP24 fitness tracker, the hub will automatically turn off your lights and close the shades. Meanwhile, Home Depot's hub supports Android Wear smartwatches, so you could potentially tell your Samsung Gear Live, "I'm leaving," and have your doors lock and thermostat turn off.

There's another question that consumers should also be asking — and Home Depot and Staples should be answering: How secure is all of this? It's all too easy to hack into someone's wireless router, and now, losing your phone could be like giving away the keys to your house. Until I'm guaranteed that not even the NSA can get past my Bluetooth-enabled door lock, there's no way I'm trusting it to keep my valuables safe.

Follow Michael A. Prospero @mikeprospero and on Google+.  Follow us @TomsGuide, on Facebook and on Google+.

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  • bootsattheboar
    I look forward to turning on the neighbor's blender at 4 am.