Editorial: Android@Home is the best worst thing that could happen to home automation

As the resident Engadget home automation nerd, Google's Android@Home announcement rocked my little low-powered RF world yesterday. Seeing a brand like Google get behind home automation is the stuff I've been dreaming about ever since Nokia dipped a toe into the tepid Z-Wave waters back in 2008. Unfortunately, Nokia abandoned its Home Control Center ambitions shortly thereafter, leaving the industry in the hands of such consumer powerhouses as Zensys, Sigma Designs, ExpressControls, AMX Corp, Control 4, Echelon, and Jung. Heard of them? No, no you haven't, and that's my point.

Home automation has long suffered from the lack of a consumer-centric approach. Consumer electronics companies have almost universally come around to the new mantra of user experience. Most companies have finally awoken from their deep eighties slumber to realize that a single product can no longer dominate an industry on its own -- the age of the Walkman is over. For success, a product must encompass great software, great services, hardware that just works, and stellar support when it doesn't. In short, the user experience is what sets the product apart. Home automators have yet to realize this but Google's announcement could force the issue.

It's with open arms that I welcome Google into my home, that I willingly prostrate myself at the feet of Matias Duarte. Android@Home is the first concrete step towards realizing the hopes I had ever since Google announced its PowerMeter smart meter partners back in 2009. Surely you remember PowerMeter? Google's free web service that lets home owners monitor their total energy consumption? Probably not, because the device-level component was missing. That all changes with Android@Home since it focuses on automating the products you use on a daily basis: light switches, light bulbs, power sockets, washing machines, window coverings, thermostats, loudspeakers, etc. Every electrical device in the home is fair game.

So far the company has promised partnerships with "several industry players" but has only demonstrated a prototype wireless lightbulb from Lighting Science and an Android@Home media hub. The hub reference design, aka Project Tungsten, combines a Music Beta endpoint with a bridge to your home network to create a pretty compelling distributed audio solution akin to a Sonos ZonePlayer. Now, two devices is nothing. But the potential, the potential is staggering, giving users the ability to drill all the way down from the whole-home energy view to the device and switch level without ever leaving their browser or smartphone app. That's the future I've been dreaming of. That's what could trigger an explosion in sales of home automation gear. Or not. Google I/O launches have a varied history of uptake (uh hem, Wave, Chrome OS, Gears, Friend Connect).

There's an old joke told in the water-cooled confines of the corporate data center that goes something like this: the best part about standards is that we have so many to choose from. A quip that certainly applies to home automation networks. Any DIYer hoping to begin automating their home will first have to select a protocol amongst the Z-Wave, Insteon, ZigBee, or X10 standards, to name just a few. Now we have another: Google. Based upon our conversations with Google at I/O, Android@Home will use a mesh networking protocol that functions in the 900MHz frequency bands just like Z-Wave -- but it's not Z-Wave. Google has developed its own wireless protocol and Android@Home framework that lets Android apps discover, connect, and communicate with electrical appliances and devices in the home. So yes, it's proprietary, but hey, it's "open."

The way I see it, the incumbent industry players could rally behind Google's new networking standard (and enormous brand recognition) or distance themselves from Google entirely resulting in the further fragmentation of the home automation scene. I truly hope it's the former. Just as the burgeoning PC industry required a common OS and application set in order to take root and thrive within corporations, it's my belief that home automation requires a strong centralized developer framework and a common wireless protocol for interconnecting components in order to expand beyond its novelty status into a full-blown consumer offering. Imagine it: the Samsung Galaxy Table Saw, the Apple iSocket, the HTC Temperature Sensor. Come on industry, let's do this. You'll make some money and we'll finally automate the light bulb and switch nearly 100 years since its commercialization.