I know that people will go and start ranting on using terms like “Internet of Shit” just for the title I’m using here. Despite being as wary and cynical about the subject of connected appliances as the next security-aware engineer, I want to point out that those reactions are blind and lacking empathy. So if your answer is to think that you’re smarter than the plug and me combined, there’s maybe no reason for you to stay around to read the post.
I also need to put the usual disclaimer forward: I work for Google, a company that produces “smart” appliances. I don’t have anything to do with the hardware products, have no special insight into them, and I am her talking about things as myself alone. I’m also not really talking about Google hardware beside for a few references to the Assistant here and there, and that’s simply because I happen to be using Google Home as my hub.
As I said I’m fairly cynical about smart appliances. It took quite a bit for me to even buy a single one, but I’m now a very happy user of a LIFX Mini Colour smart bulb. It was probably this year’s best gadget buy for me, and it is not just about the ability to control the light with an app on my phone — or with the Assistant. The bulb can dim, change colours, and can be set onto a dynamic schedule. It’s extremely convenient, and an improvement in my quality of life, particularly by setting it to red as I go to sleep, instead of keeping it bright white.
Of course, like always when buying a device that relies on external services to work (the infamous “cloud”), I am still worried about the risk of the company going under, or dropping support for my specific device, and letting me deal with the broken pieces. But quite honestly, if you tried to avoid all the cloud-based services and hardware nowadays, you will end up a luddite. And maybe you want that. Besides IKEA, that requires their full bridge, I don’t know of any other smart home brand that provides local-only controls — and local-only means no talking to the Assistant to turn on the light as part of the morning routine.
I’m happy enough that my LIFX can be controlled without an active Internet connection (this happened before). Maybe I’ll follow Matthew Garrett’s example and start reverse engineering it into a Python script for the rainy days.
But I digressed enough. What I wanted to talk about was rather smart plugs. Because that’s a device I’m not entirely sold on the idea of smart plugs, I started the original draft of this post because I thought they were completely useless. I changed my own mind as I was writing this, and that’s why I actually wanted to post this.
So why did I buy a smart plug if I am not sold on the idea? Well, since this is our first Christmas together, my girlfriend wants to have a proper Christmas tree at home. And since I would like to see the tree while I approach the apartment on the bus or on foot (hey, I have not had a Christmas Tree for more than a decade, I can have some fun!), I would like to have IFTTT turn it on for me.¹
I ended up buying a TP-Link Smart Plug (UK version), which comes with their own app, and integration with the various services including IFTTT and Google Assistant. Which means we’ll be able to say “Hey Google, turn on the Christmas Tree!”
There are differences between a smart bulb and a plug though. The former adds a significant amount of value add, with things like dimming, different colours, and so on. A smart plug is still only a binary operator, it’s either on, or off. You cannot do fine-grained control over that, you can only turn things on or off.
So after thinking about this, I realized there are a few requirements for something to make sense to have connected to a smart plug:
It needs to be something that cannot stay on standby the whole day. Because if it can, there’s no real advantage in having a smart plug for it, keeping it in stand by is easier, and can easily be cheaper, as the stand-by of the plug connected to WiFi might be higher consumption than the device itself.
It needs to be something that can be at least “readied” unattended. Turning on the plug for a hairdryer is not going to be very useful, if you’re not there to use it. Also if readying something unattended is too risky, it’s a bad idea to use a smart plug. This is the case for clothes irons for instance; I wouldn’t want to turn mine on if I’m not there to make sure that it’s not on top of something it shouldn’t be.
If it’s something that comes with consumables, it needs to have big enough reserves, or a way to feed itself. Going back to the clothes iron, the one I have does not have enough of a water tank. If I was to turn it on too soon, it would just waste all of it and I would go and find it empty, which is just as bad.
Given these considerations, one of the common suggestions I hear is coffee makers. At first I thought this was pointedly American, as indeed a percolator style coffee can be filled in in the evening, and then be set to turn on in the morning and make coffee for you to drink. When I spent extensive time in Los Angeles, I used the timer on a percolator to make sure I would have hot “coffee” ready immediately after waking up. But then I realized that this is very similar for Italian-style espresso machines, too: they have an internal boiler that takes a while to get to temperature and be usable, they usually have a tank big enough for a full day (or in some cases they may be connected to the water mains), and they consume enough power in standby that you wouldn’t want to keep it turned on overnight. For those who don’t drink coffee, the same can be true of automated teawakers or teamakers — I had one from Twinings back in Italy.
Another appliance that fits the bill fairly well is the electric bathroom heater, or towel rack. Heating in general is likely better suited by a smarter “whitebox” approach — indeed I have booked an appointment to install a Nest thermostat at my apartment, after getting my landlord’s permission, because I want to be able to automate hot water availability and easily tweak the temperature over the day. But in some cases, you have additional bathroom heating that has less control: I have on/off towel racks in my bathrooms in London, and my mother uses a small electric heater in Italy, after we messed up with the house’s heating plan by replacing a bulky and leaky boiler with a more modern and efficient one.
Now for both of these examples, smart plugs are not the only obvious solution. Indeed, percolators, teawakers, and espresso machines, as well as many small electric heater, often come with their own timer. This works great for the people who have a clear schedule and fixed routine. In my case that’s rarely the case: I wake up at a different time depending on what my day looks like, sometimes I oversleep because I had a bad night, sometimes I’m up earlier than average because my girlfriend is staying over and she has to go to work. A similar result exists for my mother due to different requirements: she lives alone and really doesn’t have any reason to get up a fixed time unless she’s waiting for deliveries, services, or stuff like that. And since the house is on two floors, and she has knee pain, being able to turn on the heating, get the bathroom ready, or make sure that the coffee machine is warmed up without having to get downstairs immediately, would be a very nice feature.
I can definitely see myself appreciating the idea of saying “Hey Google, Good Morning”, and know that by the time I finished listening to the BBC News headlines, the coffee is ready and still hot for me, while the bathroom is warm enough to take a shower in. Doesn’t really work for me here, because I make pour-over coffee, and the towel rack is not controlled by a normal plug, but I can dream can’t I?
By the way, Google Assistant can do that, although it’s a bit hidden: from the Home app, go into the Account tab (the last one on the right), click Settings, go to the Assistant tab, and then select Routines. From there you can set up the actions you want taken when you give it a specific hotphrase.
For most of other appliances, I would probably need more whitebox smartness. I already rely on the timer for my washing machine, but it would be nice to just put it into “standby”, loaded and locked, but not start it until I wake up, or until I’m actually leaving the apartment (I don’t get woken up by the noise of the one I have here in London, but I would have been by the one in Dublin). And something that can remind me was I get home (“Hey Google, I’m home”) that I need to unload the dishwasher.
One of the things that I actually nearly considered giving a smart plug to was the Air Wick freshner. While I would love having a fine grained intensity control that would keep a background fragrance during the day, but raise it just as I’m ready to get home, to make me feel good, just having the ability to turn it off the moment I leave and on again when I come back home, would be a very nice thing to have. On the other hand, it turns out that the plug-in device consumes significantly less power than the smart plug in stand-by, so it makes no sense as it is.
I guess using more sophisticated fragrance delivery devices, such as Yankee Candle’s Scenterpiece (that my mother has, at home) would make more sense. Alternatively, Muji has very nice oil burners, though they have a small tank for water, and candle warmers are getting more common (these are probably better than the Scenterpiece in my experience). Unfortunately these are usually table-top devices, rather than plug-in, and I don’t have the space where I would want to use it. So if someone from Air Wick or Ambi Pur is reading, consider that I would pay just as much as a smart plug to have a smart plug-in freshener that can be set to adjust the intensity over the day!
So to close it up, I’m somewhat skeptical about getting more smart plugs for myself, but I can definitely see a number of useful cases for them, as well as for smarter “whitebox” appliances. Indeed, if my mother had a decent Internet connection in 2018, I would probably set her up with quite a few of those, to make her life easier. Call them accessibility helpers, maybe.
¹ You may remember that I have some particular attachment to Christmas lights Rube Goldberg Machinery. The idea of having my own IFTTT-compatible smart Christmas light tube did pass through my head.