Smart devices have become exceedingly popular, both for businesses and innovators to produce and for consumers to buy and use on a regular basis. Smart homes, equipped with high-tech “smart” devices like smart thermostats and smart ovens, are becoming more commonplace, and consumers are eager to upgrade almost any appliance or device by connecting it to their home network.
There are several advantages offered by smart devices, though obviously, this depends on the device. Something as sophisticated as a modern smartphone can offer all the power of a computer and then some, while a smart thermostat might merely allow for the remote control and automation of your home’s temperature setting. Either way, you stand to gain.
But the smart device hype may be overestimated. The downsides and disadvantages of smart devices are easy to overlook, but it’s time we took a closer inspection.
Let’s start with reliability. Manufacturers, on an industrial scale, consider asset reliability as a major component of their economic efficiency. Ideally, their equipment needs to meet regulatory requirements, stakeholder expectations, and business needs, all at the same time. There are precise measures for what is optimal, and if a machine isn’t performing optimally, there are options to repair, replace, or abandon it.
With smart devices, everything is less clear. The inner workings of smart devices are often opaque, and diagnostic information is either vague or unavailable. This makes it difficult to truly understand how your devices work, ow what’s really happening when something goes wrong.
What Is “Smart?”
What exactly makes a device “smart?” Is it simply the ability to connect to the internet? Or does the device need some kind of touch screen? There are a handful of competing definitions, but there’s no legislation or formal requirement that establishes what a “smart device” is, exactly.
Accordingly, almost any company can produce almost any product, and call it a “smart” version of that product—regardless of whether it adds significant value to a person’s life or not. For example, your smart toaster might have a touchscreen you can use to lower your toast into the oven, but that isn’t much improved over a physical lever. It might connect to the internet to tell you the weather in the morning, but if your coffee maker, oven, and refrigerator all do the same thing, this doesn’t provide any net benefit.
Maintenance and Replacement
Discussion of “right to repair” laws have brought the public’s attention to a growing trend among tech manufacturers: discouragement of consumers’ ability to repair a malfunctioning or aging device. Basically, tech companies often make products as intricate and difficult to repair as possible, producing components that are proprietary (and thus, nearly impossible to source cheaply) or orchestrating the internal components of the device in a way that makes them virtually inaccessible. Accordingly, when a simple, inexpensive component renders the device inoperable, consumers must buy a new $500-$1,000 device, rather than paying $50 or $100 to a repair person to have the device restored to normal.
While right to repair laws are still in flux, you should know that buying any device with a greater dependence on complex technological components is necessarily going to make it more difficult to repair. You’re essentially setting yourself up for more replacements in the future, and/or more expensive repairs. Maybe that’s worth the cost—but it isn’t necessarily so.
Functionality (and Cost to Value)
What is your smart device really adding to your life, and is it good at what it does? For example, consider the smart TV. A “smart TV” usually has built-in apps that allow you to stream entertainment through channels like Netflix or Amazon Prime. But reviews on smart TV performance tend to be mixed to negative, with consumers claiming that a third-party streaming device like Roku, Chromecast, or Fire Stick is superior. If those claims are true, it would be better to buy a $300 “normal” TV with a $50 streaming device than a $600 “smart” TV that offers an inferior all-in-one version.
Privacy and Security
There’s also the question of privacy and security. When you buy and regularly use a smart device, how much data is it actively tracking? Does it keep track of all the actions you take with the device? Does it listen into your conversations? Either way, does the company that produces this device have access to those data? Are its servers secure? There are many questions to ask here.
Smart devices are often immense quality-of-life improvers, and they’ve helped the world become better connected and better informed. But let’s not pretend that smart devices are perfect, or that they’re always worth the upgrade. There are too many nuances, complexities, and downsides to simply ignore.