Smart home stuff still sucks

My other half loves his new fart button.

That’s one of the nice things about the Flic Hub — you can set up each button to perform multiple actions, including playing a range of sounds preinstalled on the hub. Some of which are farts, because fart humour knows no bounds of appropriateness. (We are yet to do it whilst the other is in a meeting, but I imagine we won’t be able to hold out too much longer. Sorry, colleagues.)

But two sentences in, I’ve already explained the downside — it’s another bastard hub.

Right now, my “smart” home consists of the following categories of thing:

  • Smart light switches
  • Smart bulbs & sockets
  • Smart speaker voice assistant things
  • Internet-enabled thermostat
  • E-ink screens that display useful info
  • Buttons to control stuff
  • Telly boxes that let us play things off our phones and/or streaming services
  • A robot vacuum

Many of those things connect directly to my Wi-Fi network, but numerous of them also need their own hub before they’re able to do that. All of them, naturally, have their own apps — which range from ‘fine’ to awful. And the set-up experience for each of them was exactly as thrilling and flawless as you are imagining, and absolutely did not involve any swearing directed at the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

I have accumulated this menagerie of devices over about four or five years, and precisely none of them were purchased on a whim. Knowing how much ‘fun’ certain friends of mine have had on their smart home adventures, I am extremely reluctant to part with my money unless I can satisfy myself that the Shiny Thing will have a positive impact on my household life. (In an efficiency/reduced frustration sort of way, not like relationship counselling.) Thankfully, all of them have more or less lived up to that standard; stuff that doesn’t generally gets returned or sold on (or left outside Terry’s house in a bassinet). My second test for whether I will buy a Thing™ is whether it works with my other Things™ in a manner that I don’t find annoying — but I’m less fussy about that, given the aforementioned comment about the apps being dreadful. My answer as to whether the products above live up to this standard is best expressed as an “ehhh” noise and a vague non-committal wavy hand gesture.

For various reasons (but mostly because of price, if I’m honest), all of this stuff is made by different manufacturers. None of it wants to talk to each other. None of it has an economic incentive to work with my other stuff, because they want me to buy the Shinier Thing® from their company. But I would have hoped that in the decade or so I have been interested in smart home stuff, the reality of how customers work might have dawned on these people a little.

I’ve tried bridges and platforms and servers and what-have-you. Home Assistant refused to install for reasons I did not know or care about enough to debug; openHAB was ‘fine’ but ran with all the efficiency of a Java application running on a calculator. (My fault, not the maintainers’; it is definitely because I put zero thought into optimisation, because I didn’t want to have to think about optimisation.) Eventually, I just gave up and let the company that makes my phone’s OS manage everything from their own-brand smart home app. It’s still far from perfect, but now I don’t have to maintain a server as well as five hubs.

I don’t really know what the point of this little rant is. I suppose I am surprised that in the five years I have owned the stuff, and kept up with the updates and what have you, nothing has really got much better at all. I’m not really a Tech Person, per se — I like all of this stuff because it makes my life easier, not because it’s tech I want to play with. I’m definitely not the sort of person these things are designed for, because I don’t care about the implementation details. I just want stuff to work. To misuse a quote said by Alec from Technology Connections: I like to do work on my computer. Not work on my computer.

But, who knows. Maybe Matter will fix everything.

About Skylar MacDonald

Reluctant technologist. CAD & Technical Lead/nerd at London Ambulance Service. Tech stuff, NHS/999 stuff, occasional Excel witchcraft. Views, regrettably, my own.