At a dinner event several years ago, a former editor-in-chief of a major computing trade magazine told attendees that his first published article was about home automation. That article ran back in 1979 -- just two years after the debut of the Apple II and two years before the introduction of the IBM PC.
Indeed, in its early days, home automation, like the PC, was confined to hobbyists more concerned with being able to do things rather than their practical value. However, the PC proved itself first in business and then with games, word processing and the consumer web as the internet grew. Meanwhile, home automation has largely remained the province of the very wealthy and corporations. Indeed, we're still likely many years away from all of us having smart homes, but there are signs of that future approaching and putting the squeeze on today's high-end installations both from above and below.
One reason why home automation has been so challenging for the non-technical has been the confusing array of different wired and wireless standards. Take lighting. At least three major wireless protocols -- INSTEON, ZigBee and Z-Wave -- vie for adoption in wall switches for lighting. And even if you pick one, it's not every consumer who is comfortable working behind the wall plate.
But recently we've seen encroachments from two of the most popular wireless networks: WiFi and Bluetooth. In lighting, for instance, we've seen the development of light bulbs that can not only be turned on and off (and dimmed) via WiFi, but also change color -- from companies as diverse as lighting giant Philips and Kickstarter campaigner LIFX. WiFi has been the first radio standard supported by connected thermostat startup Nest. And now door locks such as Lockitron and remote doorbells like DoorBot are planning to work together to enable unmanaged remote monitoring and unlocking of homes.
WiFi makes sense for products that have access to a permanent power source. For sensors expected to last months or a year on batteries, though, such as those used in security applications like window openings and motion detection, Bluetooth Smart is developing into a competitor to other low-power radios. It has the advantage of already being built into virtually every smartphone, a device that will invariably be used to control homes, particularly remotely.
Another way around the longstanding standards morass has been to simply support multiple ones. Home improvement chain Lowe's, for example, now offers two home automation sets under the Iris brand. The Safe and Secure kit focuses on security monitoring while the Comfort and Control Kit centers on energy management. Both cost $179 (or are bundled together in a Smart kit for $299) and both mix and match ZigBee and Z-Wave components.
First, home automation is rapidly becoming tied into wireless data and broadband.
But while the DIY model might be getting simpler, the real push in home automation in 2013 and beyond is coming from service providers looking past the "triple play" of voice, video and (mobile) broadband. Security companies such as Vivint and ADT have been pushing home automation as an outgrowth of their security businesses with the panels acting as hubs for Z-Wave components.
The market is also attracting the attention of service provider heavyweights such as Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and others. First, home automation is rapidly becoming tied into wireless data and broadband. Got an alert on your phone that someone is at the door? Perhaps you want to peek in via remote camera for a quick chat with whoever is there?
Second, it is one of an emerging breed of consumer subscription-based services like health monitoring and payments that may not be universal for some time, but which are supplementing today's slow-growth or declining markets such as pay TV and VoIP. These services may not be adopted as widely as, say, cellular service, but rather they represent a new tier of services built on top of broadband.
Beyond the House
"Home automation" has always been, at best, an incomplete description of what are sometimes now called smart buildings. Indeed, a lot of so-called home automation installations have taken place in small businesses and a lot of the actions are done manually and not really automatically. In addition, many people's homes are apartments -- too small to justify the kinds of elaborate, multi-room systems facilitated by advanced, low-power mesh networks.
One opportunity to increase the adoption of home automation is to offer more basic capabilities to people who live in smaller dwellings. An option on the market today comes from SimpliSafe, an inexpensive, but monitored system that costs only $15 per month. If companies with tens of millions of customers such as telcos or cable companies could tack even that small premium on to their monthly fees, it would represent a substantial revenue boost.