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What's Smart Home Technology?

What do people mean when they talk about smart homes? Here are the benefits to smart home technology, and concerns around security.
If you were to go Best Buy tomorrow, you’d see a lot of smart appliances. Smart washing machines, smart fridges, smart stoves.

But what do people actually mean when they say a fridge is smart?

This post is going to look at what people mean when they talk about smart homes, the various benefits to smart home technology, and some of the concerns around this sort of technological proliferation (spoiler: it’s security).

What is smart home technology?
Smart home technology is the general term given to basic home amenities that have been fitted with communication technology, enabling some degree of either automation or remote control. It includes things like:

Appliances, like washing machines, fridges, and garage door openers
Home entertainment systems
Home security systems
Environmental controls, like air conditioning, heating, and lighting
It also includes the various devices that have hit the market that regulate and control all these devices, Like ZigBee, Z-Wave, Lutron, and Wink. These are systems that unite all your smart devices are give you one node to access everything, and they usually come with some mobile software or app so you can do it from wherever you want in the house or when you’re out and about.

So far, the development of smart home tech has been modular, and aside from a few experiments or dedicated projects, we have yet to see a truly smart home from the ground up.

However, this modular development, made possible by programs that let home owners add or subtract smart appliances as they acquire or retire them, opens the floor to infinite combinations of smart technology. It also means that people can invest as much or as little as they want into improving the IQ of their house.

Advantages of a smart home
Connecting all of your appliances to your smartphone is an obvious plus – it means that you can run your laundry while you’re at work, or save money on your energy bill by optimizing your heating to only be on when you’re home (and maybe 15 minutes either side). Some countries reward people with discounts for running their electricity during off-peak hours, so you could start your dishwasher at 3am instead of 7pm, when everyone else is starting theirs.

Another advantage is that people have a greater awareness of where their resources are going with more information about what’s using what. Most smart home systems come loaded with usage logging tech, making it easy to see your resource use (and thus your money).

Security concerns
Unfortunately, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine. A huge roadblock to the Internet of Things (IoT) in general and to smart home technology in particular is security. Broadly speaking, there are two problems to overcome. The first is that any time you connect a device to a network and connect that network to the internet, you open up another port you have to protect.

Imagine that you were defending a castle. If the drawbridge is up, it’s nice and easy. If the drawbridge is down, it’s a little harder, but still manageable. Now imagine that there are 10 drawbridges, and they’re all down. That’s what adding multiple devices to your network does.

The second problem according to Mike Armistead, VP and general manager of HP’s Fortify unit, is that most of the home tech on the market now runs on some variation of Linux, which means that they’re subject to the same security concerns that computers are, except that most devices fail to address security the way PCs do.

This isn’t an abstract problem though. HP did a study in 2014 looking at 10 popular IoT products and found an average of 25 faults per device. While they didn’t name any of the devices, they did say the devices were: “TVs, webcams, home thermostats, remote power outlets, sprinkler controllers, hubs for controlling multiple devices, door locks, home alarms, scales and garage door openers.”

Of those 10 things, 8 are smart home technology.

Smart home technology is projected to be a billion dollar business by 2020, and it represents the most advanced sector of the Internet of Things. The appeal is clear – more information, more control, and more automation of your home let you make better decisions and optimize how you use your limited resources.

It’s good for the planet and it’s good for your wallet. However, until the gaping security holes are at least partially plugged, smart home technology still has some serious hurdles to overcome before it reaches ubiquity.
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