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5 problems with the “smart home” of the future

Rick Newman
The Exchange
Source: Thinkstock

Many of us haven't even mastered our smartphones yet and now the “smart house” is edging in on us.

Google (GOOG) just bought Nest, a startup founded by Apple (AAPL) alumni that makes sentient thermostats and other household gizmos that can figure out our living patterns. Cisco (CSCO) and other big tech firms are working furiously to build an “Internet of things” that will communicate with each other and digitally gossip about us. Apple is playing it cool, but tech insiders say Siri may soon be moving in with us. “Google wants to run your home before Apple does,” MarketWatch recently declared.

Well. While we should perhaps be flattered that everyone is knocking on our doors, I have a few concerns about these efforts to raise the IQ of our homes. Such as:

We lose our phones sometimes. A smartphone provides revolutionary new conveniences — until you lose it. When that happens, you don’t just go back to 1999. You revert to a Cro-Magnon quality of life because everything that mattered to you was stored on your phone. Sure, you can buy a new one (that will be $500, please), and all your information will be restored from the cloud, but if you can’t get to the store RIGHT AWAY, you must endure an excruciating interlude during which you basically don’t exist.

The smartphone will be the control module for the smart home, since you’ll manage everything (or maybe it will manage you) through apps downloaded to your mobile device. When your phone goes missing, will the heat stop working? Will Hal — I mean Siri — let you through the front door if you don’t remember the password? When the power goes out and your battery dies, will the China Syndrome ensue? The more power we entrust to our phones, the more we stand to lose when they fail us.

Doesn't Google already know everything about us? The company and its ubiquitous software already know everything we search for on the Internet, everything we write in our Gmail accounts and everybody we call on our Android phones. What else is there? Oh, right – Google wants to know when our refrigerators are empty, our bank accounts full and our love lives lacking — so it can send “targeted ads” promising to provide what is needed. Tell ya what — Google already knows enough about me. The preferred crispiness of my toast is between my smart toaster and me.

It won’t clean itself. Data, data, data. To technology firms, this is the only thing that matters anymore. But homeowners think differently. Targeted ads? Learning thermometers? Bleh. Here’s what will really get my attention: A self-cleaning house. A self-shoveling driveway. A self-mowing lawn. And a self-weeding garden. I don’t really care if my home is smart — but I’d be delighted if it picked up after itself. Got an app for that?

Gadgets are bad communicators. Remember VHS versus Beta? Quaint and old-fashioned, right? Except we still have the same technology incompatibilities all around us. Macs are barely compatible with Windows. Android and iOS are parallel universes. You can’t use an AT&T (T) device on a Verizon (VZ) network or vice versa. And the typical charger becomes obsolete about a month after you buy one for every room. When Google, Apple or Samsung promise a wonderhome filled with devices that communicate with each other, what they really mean is you’ll be locked into buying everything from that one provider for the rest of your life, and utterly captive to planned obsolescence. Miss one upgrade and your smart home will suddenly be as dumb as a chimney.

Dumb technology has its charms. Most nights when I walk through the door after work, I’m not sure who will be home, what will be for dinner or whether anybody has drawn a bath for me. And that’s fine with me, because I spend enough time staring at my smartphone and I don’t need any more tracking apps. In fact, I enjoy putting the phone away and gazing upon humans who might surprise or entertain me with tales of what happened that day. Sometimes we even discuss whether to move the thermostat up or down. It only takes about 10 seconds.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.