Analysis Ikea has just announced the entry of smart home technology into the mainstream with a new range of lights that can be activated by motion or smartphone app.
The Trådfri lineup is quite extensive – four lightbulbs, three light panels, five cabinet lights, and four sensors/gateways – and is so far only available in the company's home country of Sweden. Trådfri means "wireless" in Swedish. The lights can turn on and off, be put on timers and change color according to sensors and a smartphone app.
The product line represents a big step forward for a market that has suffered from high expectation and low growth. Despite ready availability of such products – largely defined with a connection to the internet or a smartphone – take-up has been slow and largely confined to early adopters.
Ikea has brought its unique combination of good style with a low price: its entry bundle of a gateway, remote control and two bulbs costs 749 Swedish krona – equivalent to $85 – which is a pretty good price. It's not as clumsy or clunky as many other products out there. This being Ikea it has also, presumably, resolved technical and security issues that continue to plague the rest of the market.
That said, this is very far from cutting-edge technology and it suffers many of the same issues that have stymied growth in the smart home market. Most significantly: a lack of interoperability and the need for a gateway.
A few years ago, when sales of smart lightbulbs, smart sockets, smart thermostats and smart locks was expected to explode, everyone and their dog pushed out products using one of the two main standards – ZigBee and Z-Wave – and made it all work through their own gateway (Ikea is going for ZigBee).
It didn't take people long to realize, however, that for smart homes to take off, manufacturers needed to think in terms of eco-systems: you have to be able to control your smart lights and door lock in the same app.
No one wants to have to open one app for this light, and another one for that light; one to control your thermostat and another for your camera. On top of which, no one but no one wants to have five different gateways all plugged into your modem or router. Most households have a router that takes, at most, four Ethernet cables.
Very few houses are going to invest in extra networking gear just to be able to turn a light on and off with an app when you are five feet from the switch anyway.
And so the wise smart home companies are increasingly working on how to get their products communicating and coordinating with others. Apple, of course, believes it is so great that it can create its own entire ecosystem and people will pay it to enter. Its HomeKit solution is finally showing signs of life, but it is four years later than it planned and its insistence on inserting its own Apple-approved chip into everyone's HomeKit products did not bring it a lot of love.
Poster-child Nest – which, to our eyes, is still hands-down the best smart home company out there – has tried to build on its rockstar status by creating a mini "works with Nest" ecosystem using its own proprietary protocols. Parent company Google/Alphabet recently killed that approach by effectively telling Nest to use its now-open Weave and Thread protocols/standards.
Meanwhile, ZigBee looks safe, mostly because Thread has decided to interoperate with it, and Z-Wave is desperately clinging on, trying to maintain its more tightly controlled approach (which has its benefits) without giving away control and revenue.
I did it Mywåy
All of which is to say that Ikea is largely doing its own thing, as it often does. Everyone who has ever tried to find one of those uniquely designed metal thingymajigs to fix their Ikea furniture knows that the company is its own self-contained universe. (Likewise just about every other Ikea fitting.)
But that is what makes Ikea, Ikea. It does a really good job and does it cheaply enough that when your furniture breaks and you can't find any way to fix it, you scrap it and buy another one – from Ikea.
In this smart home lighting move, it has created its own world and it may well work – Ikea shoppers will see what will no doubt be an impressive display while looking at something else, and will snap it up. Whether that causes a broader take-up by the rest of the smart home market is far less certain.
Yes, you can get out your mobile phone and turn on the light on the other side of the room. You can also get out your chair and hit the switch. The latter approach is usually faster.
The only silver lining is the use of Amazon's Alexa or the Google Home to give voice commands to turn lights on and off.
This works to a large degree and, as with all voice-activated efforts, is significantly less annoying than fumbling about with an app. That is, when the machine hears you correctly. In short, we're still not there. But Ikea has definitely indicated that we will be at some point. ®