Smart homes are a broken mess and Nest wants to fix it

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Rishi Chandra has a vision for what a smart home should look like in five years. As the lead for Google Nest products, it’s his job to think ahead. He doesn’t have all the answers, he admits, but he has an idea of what he’d like to see. Given his role at one of the most influential companies in the world, his ideas about how to push the smart home forward could affect the rest of the industry. Based on what Chandra shared with me at a recent interview in New York, the future of the smart home involves a lot of playing nice, even with would-be rivals.

Chandra believes we are entering the fourth stage of computing. “We went from PC to web, web to mobile, and now we’re going from mobile to ambient,” he said. Ambient computing is the idea that devices like sensors, speakers and displays are embedded in the environment all around you — thus, “ambient.” Chandra also calls this distributed computing as opposed to integrated. In the latter, all the parts of the computer are in one central hub or device. Distributed computing, meanwhile, has its components scattered across a space. In Chandra’s mind, these pieces fall into three categories: sensors, inputs and outputs. An input is something like a microphone in a remote or smart speaker or a touchscreen on a connected display while an output could be an Android TV, an Echo speaker or even a Philips Hue light.

There are a variety of devices that make up this ecosystem, and therein lies the problem: It’s not convenient for the consumer. “There’s no one thing I can put in my home and just put in the wall and be like, ‘Oh, now it’s all smart,'” Chandra said. Individual smart home companies sell bits and pieces of a puzzle, and to be fair, they’re not wrong to focus on making the things they’re good at making. Philips Hue, for example, has focused on lights, and part of its strategy has been “to ensure that partner brands work seamlessly with (its products),” according to the company’s head of technology, George Yianni.

But fragmentation creates friction.

“As an industry, we’re giving all the building blocks for this notion of a smart home, right? We sell you a thermostat, we sell you a camera, we sell you smart speakers, smart display, whatever it might be,” Chandra said. “But then we ask the consumer to actually build the house.”

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