I’m starting a Smart Technology Series to provide my 2 cents in what is being called Smart ___ (fill in the blank). These are typically marketing names for the Things that make up the “Internet of Things”. Call it lights, appliances, packets, shelves, etc; “things” that are part of the IoT are supposed to be smart, but the truth is, most are just connected to the Internet with little to no smarts.

Prefixing everyday things with the adjective “smart” seems like a good marketing practice. But how truly smart are smart things? There is no common baseline to call a thing smart. Not that I am suggesting to regulate the term, the way organic foods are. Creating a committee of smart people to regulate what smart is, does not seem smart at all. But it does leave things too open for the average consumer and technologist to figure out.
A few years back, I tried (unsuccessfully, I might add) to coin the phrase “clever phone”. Are you old enough to remember the Palm Pre and the Microsoft Kin? Calling a device “clever” rather than “smart” makes sense: Not a simple device, but one that can do a few more things than a traditional device but not quite as smart as an iPhone or Android. I think we are at a similar point now with the so called Smart things. Being clever means being skilled at doing or achieving something; being somewhat talented. Whereas smart implies some intelligence, or the ability to do something independently for a positive outcome. In a sense, smart involves some decision making process whether it is natural or artificial. It is in this bloggers opinion that most so called Smart Things now are just clever.

Let’s start with Smart Lights:
If you get a “smart light”, like the Phillips Hue, you can do all sorts of fancy things with it. You can change colors, dim the light, have it turn on with a specific trigger, etc … but there is one fundamental flaw: the light switch has to be on. If you are tired at night and just flicked the light off (as most of us do), that is it, all your smart programing goes out the window until you remember to flick the switch back on. And if you just want your light to go on as you flick your switch, let’s say to look for something, you may not be able to, since the switch just provided power to the light so it can then apply the “smarts” you spent so much time programming.
How do you solve that, you might ask? Well, the first attempt is to add the smarts to the switch so it controls a “dumb” light. The problem with that approach is that your light will only turn on, off and maybe dim; no colors here…

So, IMHO, both the light and the switch are clever since they can do more than my traditional switch or light. But neither is really smart per se. The way I have worked around this is obviously by combining both: a “clever” switch controlling a “clever” light. That way, you can control when the light goes on and off as well as the color temperature and intensity of the light. You can still flick it on and off as you do with a traditional light.

We can extend this idea to a bunch of other Smart Home things like speakers, appliances, locks, blinds, garage door openers, etc. They are all limited, but do perform things that the traditional counterparts don’t. However, the combination of things and good programming can make things smarter. But, installing, setting up, programing, and securing is not for the faint of heart. The ecosystem of these “clever things” is a mess, a real mess. There are hubs, protocols, devices, wireless standards, IFTTT, etc. Just look at the list of supported devices in Google Home. But that is a topic for a future post.

In essence, calling IoT “things” smart seems like a promise, rather than a reality. In order to use them to create a true Smart Home, Smart Enterprise, Smart Healthspace, or Smart Buildings you will not only need to mix and match them, but you will need to program the smarts to make them unique. So let’s just be candid, call the things clever and spend the necessary time making these installations truly smart and unique.

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