The “smart home” has not yet distinguished itself. Sure, you might dim your lights with an app; you might even talk to your large appliances. But despite years of promised ubiquity, the connected home has yet to cleave with mainstream reality. It’s too expensive, too futzy, too filled with interoperability landmines. You know who can fix that? Ikea. In fact, it’s already started to.
Ikea’s current smart home lineup is limited to a handful of lighting products. Nothing so special about that. But the way Ikea has so far approached its Trådfri LEDs illustrates exactly how the furniture behemoth can light a path toward a generation of products that finally fulfill the smart home’s potential. They’re cheap. They’re easy. And most importantly, they’ll soon speak HomeKit, Alexa, and Google Assistant with equal fluency.
No surprise, maybe, that a Swedish company embraces neutrality. But as Ikea goes, the rest of the industry may have to follow. Let’s hope so, anyway.
Stick To the Basics
The Ikea smart home—which it calls “Home Smart,” because even the branding is economical—reflects the rest of furniture giant’s strengths. The Trådfri lights strip down functionality and flash. They don’t change color, and you can’t control them from halfway around the world. If those immediately register as disadvantages to you, chances are you’re not the target market in the first place.
“The smart home has been possible for some time, but there’s been two major dilemmas,” says Björn Block, who heads up Ikea’s Home Smart division. “It’s too complicated, and too expensive. Let’s make it super easy to install and super easy to understand, at a price tag you haven’t seen before.”
To that end, Trådfri bulbs work right out of the box. Screw them in, put a battery in the included remote, and you’re set. Smart, but simple. You can also, of course, buy a hub and download an app so that you can control them through your phone, and most of buyers likely will. But at least you have the option of dumbing down your smart bulbs a bit.
Starting with just lighting also keeps things simple for Ikea. Rather than slapping a chip in the nearest Frostig, it entered the market playing to its strengths.
“They’ve had lighting fixtures for quite a long time,” says Brad Russell, a research analyst at Parks Associates. “It’s a natural fit for them. One of the use cases for lighting is design, so that fits into the design consciousness of the brand. Also more generally speaking, lighting is a low-cost entry point for any smart home.”
There’s a practical benefit to starting slowly, as well. By easing into the smart home market, Ikea can ease its customers along too. It doesn’t have to be a mess; in fact, it’s as easy as screwing in a lightbulb. Especially given Ikea’s commitment to working with whatever tech you already have in the house.
Trådfri of Babel
Some good news under the hood: Trådfri uses the Zigbee Light Link standard to communicate with the rest of the smart home, meaning it’ll play nice with a wide range of devices. That includes competing smart bulbs; after a planned software update, you’ll be able to control your Trådfri from within the Philips Hue app.
That commitment to interoperability feels rare in today’s smart home world. It’s valuable turf, after all. A home only has so many sockets. But Ikea has still chosen openness, a model that, in an ideal world, every retailer would follow.
“We were pretty clear from the start that we couldn’t succeed doing this by ourselves,” says Block. “It was never our intention to create a proprietary system that would knock other users out.”
Block likens that smart home approach to Ikea’s more conventional offerings. “If you look at Ikea furniture, you can match with furniture from other retailers. We want to tap into the same behavior, and same type of story,” says Block. “It should be the same type of freedom to choose.”
Perhaps just as importantly, Ikea announced this summer that it would extend that freedom of choice to voice voice assistants. After an incoming round of software updates, it won’t matter whether you own a Google Home or Amazon Echo, or both. You’ll be able to shout at your light fixtures, and have them respond.
OK, so it may sound silly when you put it like that. But voice commands will be an important part of making smart homes viable. Pulling out your phone, opening an app, and tapping a few times doesn’t feel all that more disrputive than just flipping a switch or adjusting a dimmer with your fingers. But a house that listens to you? That’s sci-fi material.
“Ikea’s move to support these intelligent assistants in the same device will appeal to a wider consumer base than could be obtained if they were to integrate with only one over another,” says Adam Wright, senior consumer IoT analyst for research company IDC.
And consider the alternative: A world in which being a Google Home or Echo Dot household determine big-ticket home purchases. That’s not as farfetched as it sounds; Sears recently cut a deal to sell Alexa-enabled Kenmore appliances through Amazon. Given that Amazon doesn’t even sell the Apple TV on its digital shelves, it seems unlikely that you’ll ever find a Siri-powered Kenmore dishwasher.
Set aside how appealing that might sound to you personally; if the smart home in general has a chance of mass appeal, it needs as much interoperability as possible. And that’s exactly what Ikea’s selling.
Ikea’s biggest advantage—and its best opportunity to boost the smart home overall—lies in its sheer size. Over 900 million people pass through the doors of its 400 stores each year. It’s the biggest retailer in the world. That means Ikea can not just sell, but educate.
“The vast majority of consumers don’t understand the value proposition of these products,” says Russell. But what seems either too involved or not useful enough online can suddenly sharpen into focus when experienced in person. Being the first in-person introduction to the smart home should benefit Ikea, too, as it looks for ways to broaden its connected portfolio.
“We have a lot of insights, because when you try and test that product, that’s when you make the buying decision,” says Block.
Ikea hasn’t announced its next smart target, though Block says his team works together with most sectors of the company. That doesn’t imply a scattershot approach, though.
“I think we’re quite curious about different product areas in the home, but the common denominator is we will not step in just to do it,” says Block. “Only if it makes sense.”
In a world filled with smart shower heads, smart trash cans, and even a smart hair brush, it’s disorienting to hear a company focused on hitching fewer devices to the internet, not more. It’s unusual to think in terms not of moving fast and breaking things, but moving slowly, simply, and getting it right.
In fact, that deliberately modest quality feels so refreshing cinches it: No one wins more with Ikea entering the smart home than the smart home itself.