Connected Intelligence Requires Compromise

Lights and cameras teach us how manufacturers need to consider trade-offs as they develop products for this new era

Russell McGuire
Oct 5, 2020 · 6 min read

Last week I started a new series of articles on the Connected Intelligence Revolution and the challenges that companies face in this new era. Specifically we took lessons from the residential irrigation industry and connected garage door openers.

Today we’re going to look at security cameras and connected lights to learn the simple lesson that companies need to make trade-offs in developing products for the Connected Intelligence era.

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Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash

For some reason that escapes me now, several years ago we decided that it would be good to have a security camera watching the front of our house, so we bought a Ring doorbell. That was a pretty incredible product that opened our eyes to all the activity going on around our house (mostly animals) that we had previously been blind to.

But there were a couple of limitations to the Ring. The first was that the only logical place to put it was next to the front door. Second, the original version didn’t have the clearest video with only 640x480 resolution (that has been resolved in more recent versions of the product). Finally, the camera only captured video when it detected motion. We knew we were missing things either because the motion sensor didn’t trigger, or the recording started too late.

Next we tried a Dropcam. Dropcam was a ground-breaking streaming camera that was simple to set up anywhere, was always recording, and had crisp HD video. Google acquired Dropcam and rebranded the camera under their Nest smart home brand. There were two big issues with the Dropcam — first it was an indoor camera (so we set it up inside a window, pointing out into the yard, which didn’t work great), and it had to be plugged into a wall outlet. Nest now offers outdoor versions to which we’ve since upgraded. But the outdoor camera still needs to be plugged into an outlet, which significantly constrains where you can place it.

Next we bought an Arlo system with three completely wirefree cameras connected to a hub in the home. As a “wirefree” solution, the Arlo is battery powered, so you can mount the camera anywhere. Unfortunately, like the Ring, the Arlo only records when motion is detected. Arlo does have one other advantage over Ring and Nest, it doesn’t require a subscription. The Ring plans start at $30/year and the Nest plans start at $60/year. Arlo does offer plans (starting at $3/month) for longer video storage and they even offer an option for 24x7 recording (although this requires the camera to be plugged into an AC outlet).

We still use all of these cameras around our home, leveraging each one’s strengths as appropriate, but the main point is that each of these companies had to make decisions in their product design and those decisions involve compromises and trade-offs that impact the usefulness of their products.

I want to focus on two specific decisions that security camera manufacturers (and many other IoT companies) are forced to make: battery vs. AC power, and subscription plan options.

While AC outlets are available throughout our homes, they are much less common on the outside of our homes. So, battery-based cameras enjoy the benefit of being able to be mounted anywhere without running power cables to a nearby power source.

However, camera batteries must be recharged or replaced regularly. My Ring battery probably lasts 6–9 months between charges while each of my Arlo cameras need to be recharged every 4–6 months, depending on the amount of activity. Since recording video consumes significant power, battery-based cameras cannot support continuous recording.

Similarly, IoT companies need to make decisions about the subscription plans they offer. Unlike a traditional, non-connected product, devices in the Connected Intelligence era drive additional ongoing costs for the product company — especially in the security camera space where a significant amount of video storage is provided to the consumer.

However, Google’s changes to their plan pricing have been my greatest frustration with their product, and for as little as the Ring doorbell does, I question the value of paying an ongoing subscription. The fact that I can keep adding Arlo cameras to my system without incurring a subscription fee has helped keep me loyal to the company.

Of these three companies, Arlo has probably worked the hardest to try to eliminate compromises and offer consumers the best of all worlds. Arlo cameras can be placed anywhere wire-free, or you can power the camera with a solar charger, or you can plug the camera in to an AC outlet. If plugged in, you can (for $10/month) add continuous video recording for an Arlo camera. Arlo also offers the best subscription-free option plus paid subscription options with worthwhile upgrades (2K or 4K video, longer video storage, and continuous video recording).

But it’s probably impossible to avoid all trade-offs.

Connected lighting is another space where I’ve seen meaningful compromises and trade-offs. At VisuALS Technology Solutions, as we focused on restoring independence, dignity, and hope for those with debilitating conditions, we studied various options for enabling those we serve to be able turn lights on and off in their homes.

Smart lighting is one area where an innovative incumbent has enjoyed strong success in the face of very active new entrants. The Hue system from Philips Lighting quickly established an early leadership position. This system uses a hub connected to your home network that then communicates wirelessly to multiple special light bulbs in your home.

But Hue is far from being the only game in town. Early challengers focused on eliminating the need for a hub, integrating WiFi or Bluetooth directly into the lightbulb. (Philips has similarly added Bluetooth into their Hue bulbs, eliminating the need for the hub, and added a line of WiFi connected bulbs.) But other options we considered at VisuALS included smart light switches (for ceiling fixtures) and smart plugs (for lamps).

So one of the trade-offs that smart lighting companies need to consider is whether or not to use a hub. A hub makes it easier to integrate multiple devices (e.g. controlling all the living room bulbs at once), may make it easier to integrate with other devices in the home (e.g. smart speakers), provides a secure way to connect the devices when not home, and can use protocols like Zigbee which use less power and may be less expensive to integrate into light bulbs than WiFi. Requiring a hub, however, increases the initial cost of adding smart lighting to your home, and increases the initial set-up complexity.

Another trade-off is whether to build the smarts into the bulb or into a switch or plug. Using a smart switch or plug allows the use of any light bulb, reducing the cost of the consumables that you regularly replace. A smart switch or plug, however, costs several times the cost of a single smart bulb. Replacing a light switch is also a much more complex and dangerous project than replacing a light bulb, often requiring an electrician.

As Arlo has done in the security camera space, Philips has been able to largely overcome the compromises caused by these trade-off decisions by expanding their product line to cover all of these options. This optionality, however, translates into complexity for the consumer as he seeks to figure out how to capture the power of the Connected Intelligence Revolution in his own home.

In other words, sometimes overcoming tradeoffs merely introduces another tradeoff. Welcome to the revolution!

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