What’s the Difference Between a Smart, Connected, and Automated Home?

Too many writers creating content about new and nascent technology use the terms “smart,” “connected,” and “automated” interchangeably when it comes to Internet of Things (IOT) devices for the home. And we are often guilty of it here at the Direct Energy Blog when talking about appliances, home systems, and other conveniences.

What's the Difference Between a Smart, Connected, and Automated Home? | Direct Energy Blog
Just because you can operate your home from your smartphone doesn’t mean you have a smart, connected, or automated home.

As a result, we’ve unwittingly created some confusion among consumers. In an attempt to clear up the bewilderment, we want to examine the actual meaning of “smart,” “connected,” and “automated” and decipher how these terms should be best applied across the spectrum of gizmos, gadgets, and devices created for the Internet of Things.

The History of the Automated Home

What's the Difference Between a Smart, Connected, and Automated Home? | Direct Energy Blog
An automated home isn’t necessarily a smart or connected home.

“Home automation” has a long history of being as an umbrella term to provide an escape from domestic task drudgery for more than a century. Think back to the early 1900’s when virtually all cleaning, mending, and cooking chores had to be done by hand (and usually a woman’s hand, at that). As more homes became wired for electricity, more companies began selling labor-saving machines such as water heaters, refrigerators, sewing machines, dishwashers, clothes dryers, and especially washing machines.

As 20th Century technology progressed, the ideal “automated home” had appliances operated automatically through timers, sensors, and ultimately computers. As in – we’d all eventually live in the world of The Jetsons.

When it comes to computers used in automated homes, we’re actually discussing something called “ubiquitous computing.” “Ubicomp” describes how computers are not only omnipresent in daily life, they’re also accepted as being normal in their ubiquity. One nickname for this idea is “everyware,” as it describes how computers are now seamlessly running programs across all of society, from laptops to washing machines to cars to eye glasses.

So, just as recording music, running an automobile, playing a game, or processing digital photos are all environments requiring specific hardware/software computing solutions, so too is home automation. Which means that an automated home isn’t necessarily a smart OR connected home.

Smart vs Connected Technology

What's the Difference Between a Smart, Connected, and Automated Home? | Direct Energy Blog
Just because an appliance is marketed as “smart” doesn’t mean it actually thinks for itself.

Back in 2014, Michael E. Porter and James E. Heppelmann assessed the difference between smart and connected technology in the Harvard Business Review this way:

  • Smart things are products that incorporate sensors, microprocessors, data storage, controls, software, an embedded operating system with enhanced user interface, and the capability of running autonomously (e.g.,following a programmed schedule). Smart devices are often connected to a network of some kind, but it’s not required.
  • Connected things are products with sensors, microprocessors, and controls that communicate with networks in order to serve two purposes. On one hand, it exchanges data over the network to allow monitoring  and data collection. On the other, it’s designed to allow some of its functions to be controlled remotely by one of those smart things over a communications network.

Another and perhaps more significant difference is that your average smart device supports multiple tasks. For example, smartphones allow you to take photos, shoot videos, play games, browse the internet, as well as incorporate many of the things you can do on a computer. A connected device, meanwhile, is designed to support one specific task (or small cluster of highly specific tasks) — such as making coffee, washing, drying, or keeping food cold. Connected devices let you monitor and modify their control via their network connection.

That means a so-called smart washing machine really isn’t “smart” because it’s primarily designed to wash clothes. Its limited programming is utterly useless when it comes to editing audio, playing Assassin’s Creed, or even just running Excel. (Note: the same holds true for “smart meters.” Their main job is to send electric meter readings back to the utility company roughly every 15 minutes and not much else. Smart nothing. Heck, they can’t even run Pong.)

What's the Difference Between a Smart, Connected, and Automated Home? | Direct Energy Blog
“I usually bought groceries on the way home from work, but I often had to guess what my family needed – until my refrigerator started sending me itemized grocery lists.”

Now before we hastily conclude smart appliances don’t exist – unless you give them more computing power and augment their capabilities – let’s consider the smart refrigerator. The best and brightest of these devices read the bar codes of your food, send you photos of your fridge’s contents, and help you order groceries online. They can also sync up the various calendars of people in your home, send notes to everyone, display weather information, play music, and locate recipes on the internet.

Obviously, it’s more than just cold storage with WiFi. It’s has sensors and controls, uses an embedded operating system with a user interface, and completes multiple tasks – making it is a smart refrigerator. As maker Samsung says, the fridge has taken on a much broader function of being a hub that can effectively coordinate family activities.

Connected Home vs Smart Home vs Automated Home

What's the Difference Between a Smart, Connected, and Automated Home? | Direct Energy Blog
An example of inaccurate stock photography. Sure, you can monitor your smart home from your tablet, but you don’t need to operate it from there. That would be a connected home. A smart home thinks for itself.

In a connected home, connected devices and appliances are generally set up to be controlled by something the user wields like a remote control —a smartphone, tablet, or computer. A smart home, however, takes this one step further by incorporating a smart device into running the whole home seamlessly all by itself – without human direction.

One of goals of Ubicomp is to make the integration of computers seamless so that nothing about the experience of using a computer that seems out of place. This brings us to smart thermostats. In regard to home automation, one seamless place to run your home is via its thermostat because that’s where you control the heating and cooling – one of the core functions of your home (also the device responsible for a plurality of your energy usage).

What's the Difference Between a Smart, Connected, and Automated Home? | Direct Energy Blog
The Hive Active Heating 2 Thermostat from Centrica is a great example of a smart thermostat that could take your home from being merely connected to being truly smart.

By making the thermostat a smart device (equipping it with sensors, controls, embedded operating system with user interface, capable of supporting multiple tasks, and running autonomously) and expanding its communication capabilities into that of a hub, the smart thermostat can monitor, communicate with, and control other connected products. You can then control them remotely over the internet via your smartphone – or allow the thermostat to control your home functions without your input.

Thus, while you could create a home that is either smart, automated, OR connected (without being either of the other two), you can create a smart, connected, AND automated home. It all really depends upon how much you want the connected devices in your home to begin thinking for themselves to smartly start automating everyday home functions.

Because who wouldn’t want Rosie to help around the house?


Vernon Trollinger is a writer with a background in home improvement, electronics, fiction writing, and archaeology. He now writes about green energy technology, home energy efficiency, the natural gas industry, and the electrical grid.