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One of the themes at CES 2024 was “making the smart home easier.” Home Depot reintroduced their smart hub called Hubspace, and OliverIQ introduced itself as the first “smart home as a service.” What they have in common is that they both cite some pain points of the smart home process as their driving purpose. For Hubspace, it’s the expense of smart home devices and the need for many apps, while OliverIQ points to the confusion of set-up, that smart devices don’t always work with each other, and the general hassle of upkeep and automation. These aren’t invalid concerns, either, but after looking at both services, I’m not entirely sure either lives up to its promised value or solves these problems. In fact, I believe you are still better on your own, by following some simple rules of the road.
The premise of “simplifying smart homes” means we’re really at a point of mass adoption for smart homes, generally, and that feels like a good thing. Home Depot isn’t new to the smart home space—they were one of the only places to purchase smart products when the first products started emerging. They are taking all their in-house brands, like Husky and Hampton Bay, and ensuring those devices have connectivity and then providing an app, Hubspace, that easily connects them. OliverIQ is a monthly service that you’ll be able to purchase from your plumber, electrician, or cable tech to install, monitor, repair, and connect your smart home devices. You can’t purchase it directly from OliverIQ; you’ll always be going through your service person. Even though the approaches are different, both want to take some of the work out of your hands—and I’m suggesting that you’re better served by doing it yourself.
Setting up devices is getting easier all the time
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First, we should start with the notion that smart home-ing is complicated. It’s meant to do precisely the opposite, and I’ve noticed over the last eighteen months that devices pair faster, more easily and consistently, and that they go offline more rarely. While the Matter adoption pace isn’t as fast as anyone wants, the reality is that it’s widespread enough in most smart verticals to help. The QR code for setup that most Matter- and Thread-enabled devices use make the process smooth. Hubspace utilizes QR codes for pairing setup as well, but the service lacks Matter, Thread, Zigbee, and Z-wave, as well. It works only with wifi and Bluetooth, and the Bluetooth is only for setup. That means even if Hubspace alleviates a pain point in setup, it’s not setting you up for the future and is making you overly reliant on wifi. OliverIQ plans to just take over that entire installation process for you. However, this would mean a service call each time you want to install a new device or get a connection repaired, which feels like a way for service providers to create a new revenue stream.
A better idea is to choose one smart home hub before your first smart home device—opt into Apple Homekit, Amazon Alexa, or Google Home. There are certainly other hubs (like SmartThings), but few with as widespread support as these three. Then, choose products from bigger, well-known brands in the smart home space that support Matter and Thread and install them yourself. For instance, while there are tons of smart plugs available via Amazon; choose one from a well-known brand, such as Phillips, Meross, GE, Aqara, that work with that hub, or do some research online before purchasing. This may feel like an additional burden, but presumably you do the same research before buying any appliance. We’ll continue to review and offer reliable advice on these items here at Lifehacker.
The real smart devices we all use get cheaper all the time
The next premise about smart homes is that the products are too expensive. Sure, we write about expensive smart grills and vacuums showing up at CES, but the reality is that the smart devices most of us buy, whether light bulbs or wall switches or vacuums, are not substantially more expensive than their unconnected counterparts, and that prices have generally fallen on these products over the last ten years. There’s now a gigantic ecosystem of brands, and that competition has driven down prices, aided by fast-evolving technology. Ten years ago, a connected lightbulb could run $70; now it’s under $10. The upside of Home Depot’s plan is that their products won’t be exclusive to Hubspace—they’ll still work with Google Assistant and Alexa, so we’ll all benefit from them making more of their product line connected, even if those products are only wifi enabled (again, choosing Matter, Thread, Zigbee, and Z-wave means you’re not always relying on the Cloud).
The way to avoid this problem is by choosing products that will last you well into the future by using the latest standards for more lifetime value. Additionally, build your smart home slowly, only opting into smart home products to solve a problem that exists. If you’re annoyed by lights being left on all the time, purchasing sensors and smart bulbs solves the problem. While I appreciated that OliverIQ will recommend both products and automations based on customers’ home setup, I wasn’t impressed by the solutions themselves mentioned on my call with the CTO, and they felt salesy. He used the example of suggesting a timer for a smart garage light, but a more “smart” solution would be using a sensor or trigger device to alert the light to when someone was really in the room or not. Obviously, anything that results in a service person having to come to your home is going to mean more costs, too.
No middleman can save you from having a ton of smart device apps
An annoyance we all have about smart home tech, and one I’ve mentioned many times, is having a slate of apps on our phone that have to just hang out in the background, particularly for low level devices like bulbs and plugs. Over the past year, I’ve slowly realized I’m not entirely sure that Matter will solve this issue, that the nuanced controls over the devices will likely still remain in a specialized app, rather than a hub like SmartThings or Alexa. The hub will allow you to turn a lightbulb on and off and dim it, but probably not affect the color or motion. I don’t foresee all the function controls of a robot vacuum being accessible from a hub, either. If Home Depot can save me from installing a Hampton Bay app and a Husky app and an Ecosmart app, that would be a nice benefit, but we’ll need to see if Hubspace can really adopt all the functionality individual apps do with a UI that is decently usable. Talking to OliverIQ, which would also put most devices behind a white label hub for the service provider you bought from, they admitted that they couldn’t really prevent the original apps from needing to stay on a customer’s phone—they would ultimately only be able to work with what integrative technology each company made available, they could just hope to leverage their eventual customer base to get access to integrations other companies couldn’t. I found this premise unlikely, considering the sizable user bases of most brands, and that losing integrations were often due to security issues, not lack of users.
To avoid having a million apps on your phone, the only real answer is to work with fewer brands. Find one company that you buy all your bulbs from. If they also offer plugs and sensors, even better. Otherwise, accept your fate. Use a folder on your phone to throw all the apps into if they bother you.
Remote services and new apps can’t solve the most common problems with connected devices
The biggest pain point for me, as a smart device user, is that connected devices often go offline. Sometimes it’s here and there, and the problem resolves itself with an update. More often, the connection is just lost, and all smart home superusers know the only solution is at best a reset and at worst, a factory reset and reinstallation. Neither service can solve this issue, although OliverIQ hopes to circumvent it through routine monitoring and driver updates. I’m sure that will help the problem, but ultimately, you can’t unplug the device remotely or factory reset and reinstall it. OliverIQ will send the service provider a ticket for this, and that means the service provider has to get to that ticket, respond, and likely come out. This takes time and has an expense attached. Sure, we can solve most things with money, but I don’t think it helps sell the smart home.
The reality is, to live in a home with devices or appliances of any kind means learning at least enough about them to keep them running, and then calling in reinforcements for big repairs. I thought a lot about how companies like Comcast work with customers to solve why their wifi is out, through AI bots that guide you through troubleshooting, to how they escalate to a phone tech to work with you one on one, and eventually, whether they send someone to your home and how incredibly painful that process is even after millions of dollars in research have to have been poured into it. At some point, everyone benefits from learning to try unplugging the thing and plugging it back in.
These services may exploit and turn off the people who’d benefit from it the most
Lastly, what both services don’t say, so I am, is that I believe they’re meant for older or less technologically savvy users. While no one wants to spend Thanksgiving explaining how to connect a lightbulb to Grandpa, it’s my opinion you’re more effective at doing so than a Home Depot associate on the phone from a customer service center. You are also not trying to sell Gramps anything, and these services are. Ask anyone who outsourced their aging relative tech to services like Geek Squad about the results, and that kind of tells us how services like OliverIQ might play out. It’s primarily a revenue stream for service people; you won’t have a direct relationship with OliverIQ.
Hubspace seems harmless enough as a sentient app, but it makes users rely on Home Depot. While I am happy to welcome Home Depot to the fold, I’m left with a bitter taste over the endless interactions I’ve had with them over the last ten years when trying to purchase connected devices. Over many locations I have visited, associates seemed to be highly uneducated about the very smart tech they were selling, and often admitted to me they hadn’t received any training in smart tech or on the products. I would often hear associates telling customers misinformation about the products to sell them, and even recently while buying an appliance, I had to correct my salesperson a number of times on statements they made about smart appliances I was looking at. Will Hubspace mean a fully fleshed out education program for associates and customer service members?
The thing is, smart technology isn’t just about the self-satisfaction of having blinds open automatically at sunrise and your coffeemaker saying good morning. They serve an incredibly important role in accessibility, meaning that aging folks and the less tech inclined are actually people we really want being able to use smart tech. I’m just not convinced middlemen are the way to do it.