Author(s): Raghu Gopal
This week, General Electric (GE) announced plans to phase out production of compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) bulbs in the US by the end of 2016. Only a few years ago, the CFL was the go-to choice for customers seeking an inexpensive, energy-efficient replacement for the standard incandescent bulb. But LEDs have since found more acceptance among customers thanks to improving light quality and falling costs. There's now a clear trend for LEDs, which can last more than two decades and cost less than $5 for a basic, non-smart unit. Retailers are beginning to distance themselves from CFLs, with Sam's Club and Walmart offering fewer CFL products and Ikea choosing to carry only LEDs.
The longevity of LEDs has enabled smart light bulbs — bulbs with some form of connectivity so they can be controlled via mobile apps. These are now in production from companies like GE, LIFX, Osram and Philips, and will offer many households a simple first step in creating a smart home.
Anyone who's used a smart bulb initially appreciates the ability to control the light from near or far via a smartphone. Guests might be impressed and the kids are wowed for a few weeks, but less is said about what happens after the glitter fades and that new-gadget smell disappears. Is this connectivity overkill, or are there practical reasons for its adoption?
Smart bulbs offer a number of pragmatic uses beyond gadget magic They can add to household security, for instance, by being turned on or off from anywhere to give the impression of an occupied home. Wireless lighting provides flexibility and cost savings in new building developments and expansions by eliminating the need for some cabling, and some newer smart bulbs double as speakers, security cameras, Wi-Fi repeaters and environmental detectors. Light sockets are moving out of the shadows.
However, these features add complexity — light bulbs have previously been simple, standardised components, but users will need to think about their smart lighting as a joined-up system. This view benefits manufacturers by providing consumers with potential reasons to upgrade, but that's threatened if users only adopt inexpensive, non-smart LEDs.
Smart bulbs still border on the exclusive given prices up to 20 times more than a generic bulb. But GE's decision to focus on LEDs and connected lighting will drive down costs as they race toward mainstream, and we expect these to become one of the stepping stones into smart homes.