Smart Homes Still Aren't a Smart Choice

My phone is my life in China. People in every country think their phone is their life but until you've lived in China, you're only speaking figuratively. In Shanghai, I pay for everything with WeChat or Alipay, my public transit card is in my digital wallet, I can rent bicycles with a QR code (二维码, èrwéimǎ), and even order food and split a bill in a restaurant from my phone. I'm thrilled by what I can accomplish on-the-go with my phone and yet at home, there's a surprising lack of technology. Why do only 5% of households in China have a connected home while 30% of households in the USA use smart devices for an easier and automated lifestyle?

If you haven't explored the ways technology can make your life at home easier, here are some examples of smart devices for your connected home: a speaker (音箱, yīnxiāng) that you can control with voice commands, a scale (秤, chèng) to measure your weight, body fat and more, and a robot vacuum. 

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All of these devices exist in China and are being sold by popular companies, such as Alibaba (Tmall), JD.com, and Baidu, and XiaoMi, known for their low prices. Just as in the USA, some of these companies are focusing on creating smart devices that can be controlled by an app while others are creating apps that can control a variety of devices.

With all of these companies selling apps and devices to make your home "smarter" and your life easier, why are so few people in China connecting their appliances for a more comfortable home? "I don't stay at home much," said Maria Mao, CoFounder of GoEast Language Center. "If I have more time to spend at home I would like to have [a smart speaker]." With most digital activity done while commuting, a phone is still the priority purchase.

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Another popular concern with consumers all over the world is the security of connected devices at home. Some devices, like a thermostat (温度调节器, wēndù tiáojié qì), collect data on when you're home to help them better control the temperature. In theory, only you and the manufacturer can access this data. Rex Xu, a Chinese language teacher in Shanghai, doesn't have faith in the security of his personal data. "The companies promise that they will never use the data in another way," he says, "but the problem is we cannot make them keep their promise." In light of recent data breaches and the new General Data Protection Regulation, this concern will remain the primary disincentive for purchasing smart devices.

Yet the prevalence of WeChat and Alipay purchases in China refutes consumer's concerns about personal data. Every day people scan QR codes to transfer money, they purchase groceries and household items on TaoBao, leaving a large digital trail of their habits and locations. Between Tencent (WeChat), Alibaba (Alipay), and government monitoring of Internet activity, our lives are well-documented online. So what else keeps people from buying smart home devices in China?

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"I bought two [smart watches] for my parents... they love to compare steps with their friends," says Michael Wang, a native of Shanghai. Smart watches are not part of the core connected home devices but they exemplify the key barrier for smart home devices: sociability (社交, shèjiāo). It's convenient to have appliances in your home centrally controlled by voice or phone apps, but it remains an isolated environment. Without social connections and friendly competition, like the step counters, household smart devices will fail to become addictively popular.

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The convenience that smart homes advertise reminds us of the future imagined by the Jetsons, with self-driving cars and full meals instantly ready to eat. Technology is approaching this future but it's not ready yet. Michael explained the function of each XiaoMi smart device to me but he paused at the rice cooker. "And this one... I'm not sure what it does. A rice cooker (电饭煲, diànfànbāo) already cooks the rice for you, how is this any smarter?" People say living in modern China is like living in the future so Chinese people expect more from technology. And when it doesn't meet expectations, it's abandoned in favor of established low-tech solutions.

Smart devices have to solve a lot of problems before we'll let them in our homes. Unless they can exceed our high expectations, guarantee protection of our personal data, and appeal to our social side, they will continue to be simply a toy rather than a necessity for households all over the world.