Generally, for my role as an industry analyst I cover the impressive capabilities and changes in industrial IoT for 451 Research but I am also, like most of us, a consumer of technology in everyday life. I am an early adopter on many things but also like to hang on and see what the experience is once things have matured a bit. Having refreshed my home office recently, I felt like starting 2019 with something nice and simple, IoT smart bulbs for the main and desk light. I can say without any doubt, this is still way trickier than it should be!

A load of hubbub

I already have one smart bulb in a room of the house. It was bought a few years ago just to see how it might work for us as a family and as a bit of fun. This offers multiple tones and colours configurable from a smartphone app and, quite importantly, doesn’t need a specific smart home hub. Many of the providers seem to require their own specific hub over and above the basic wi-fi network and routers many of us have. Smart home hubs may offer some simplicity to setup and management and possibly extra security, but my games consoles, laptops, phones, watches, voice-controlled devices and robot gadgets all manage to just sit on the network and connect to the world and one another as needed.

The old switcheroo

Our existing single bulb is one light on a bank of four switches in our kitchen, breakfast and utility area. This means that generally it is turned on and off in the normal everyday way, with a flick of a switch. It also means that it is likely to be turned off at the wall along with all the other lights, which in turn means it is not able to be controlled by the app as it is effectively powered off completely. Generally, the light switch needs to be on for the bulb to be able to turn itself off or on. This is problem with brownfield retrofit of IoT to our everyday lives, it has to fit with existing infrastructure. I realized this would still be an issue in my home office, though it is only usually me that uses the room, so I carried on with the plan.

Simply just…

I plumped for two bulbs of the same type that I already have, which is approaching vendor lock in out of necessity. I plugged the first one in and followed the app instructions to get it onto my wi-fi network. As light bulbs have no on-board user interface you have to connect to them in some way to pass on the network credentials. The app did not manage to connect right away, it timed out and gave me a second option in which the bulb is put into pairing mode by rapidly turning it on and off, rather like holding a Bluetooth pairing button on headphones. That process eventually timed out too, so the app swapped to manual configuration. Here it was possibly to directly connect to the bulb as it generated its own wi-fi network to connect the phone to and then enter the local configuration data. This mode was really simple, it is what has to normally done with other devices. It was a pity I did not have that option straight away and I had to timeout and fail the other steps first. Somewhat time consuming, around 30 mins to get the bulb working.

Then it got more confusing and frustrating. I plugged in the second bulb (from the same box of two), whilst in the same room. This bulb refused to connect in the same way as the first had, but never managed to generate its own wi-fi for manual configuration. Though I tried the same cycle 3 times, 90 mins. The solution to get it to connect, in part from the documentation and by a conversation with a help desk (yes a help desk to connect a bulb!) was that the bulb could only connect on a 2.5Ghz wi-fi network. My iPhone had to be on 2.5Ghz wi-fi to find the bulb and pass the information over. However, I recently installed a very good modern mesh network across the house that, manages the 2.5Ghz and 5Ghz transparently. In order to get the most efficient roaming in the house and let the mesh manage devices the network is set with the same ID for both channels. The iPhone is not able to easily select between 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz based on the same network name. The bulb documentation actually suggests reconfiguring your Wi-Fi network with different SSIDs, just to make the bulb connect. This starts to get into territory that non-tech consumers might find more than a little confusing. As it was I was able to turn off the 5GHz on the mesh briefly, the bulb then connected first time, no fuss. After that it doesn’t care what wi-fi frequency any controlling device is on as its just on the network and visible. However, that meant that many of the 50+ devices on the network experienced some network blips. Not something you want to do on an already working system. That would mean calls dropped, updates cancelled, network games exited.

Well Connected

Configuration was now complete, with two new bulbs in a room after several hours of messing around and killing half of my wi-fi network via the router admin. Now I could explore my control options. Opening an app to turn on a light is not optimal. I am happy to go to the app to pick from a multitude of colours or set schedules etc but I needed something as simple as clicking the wall switch for normal operation. With not much work I was able to add a Siri shortcut where I can say “Hey Siri Office On” and my iPhone, or iPad (once iCloud sharing was turned on) will run the app and turn the light on. The Amazon Alexa devices are also able to understand the name of the lights and the functions, “Alexa Office Off” etc, though they work on the name of the configuration and Siri is a custom recording that you make, i.e. no direct standard across the board for voice control. I also enabled connection to the remote flow control web service IFFT (If this then that) which is a generic macro language to control devices and processes. Now my Apple watch has an IFFT button that makes a request over my network out to the internet that then sends the message back in to ask the lights to perform. All that and the old wall light switch still works, sort of, just needs a double click to turn the light on if the app has turned it off.

Geek Heaven and Consumer Hell

For me is it very useful to be able to turn the lights off after I have left the office, as a light at my end of the hall landing was recently removed. If I finish work in my office on a dark evening and turn off my light at the wall I have to wander the landing in the dark to switch on the stair lights. Now the LED glow from my room works out of the office and down the hall, I click stair lights on and issue the voice command, or press my watch button, to ask the office to shut down.  It does solve a minor problem. Also, as a tech geek the ways to set different combinations of lighting with a multitude of triggers, devices and code is something that I have been doing for many years.

It is of course a good question does anyone really want to go through any of this just to turn a light on and off? I suggest not in general. Whilst the colour and brightness function of the bulb is intriguing most people just need the light to come on. The answer may be more connected light switches than bulbs, where the hardware operates as normal but also under IoT control, a unified system. This solves the problem of needing to configure bulbs that are loaded with tech. Smart switches and keeping bulbs as it may be a way forward. Though anything needs to completely remove any setup friction.

Finally, at CES this year the ever-present internet connected smart fridge offered the prospect of messaging you if you left its door open. Twitter was full of responses, mainly indicating if it was that smart what did it not just close the door? We have some way to go on consumer IoT still.