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Much has been written about the trials and tribulations associated with the adoption of home automation technologies. The lack of mass consumer appeal is often attributed to high costs and lack of a simple, universal protocol. For the technically savvy, the idea of giving in to “vendor lock” by adopting a single company's product line has been too much to bear. However, for more affluent consumers this idea is not a problem as most of the time they rely on 3rd party installers to install and maintain their systems. This has left the DIY crowd to resort to more “hackable,” although way more complicated solutions, such as X10 products. In the end we have grown an ecosystem unsuitable for mass adoption. The niche market of affluent consumers is just lucrative enough for companies to continue to peddle proprietary solutions. The equally niche Maker- and DIY-market has been strong enough to attract those with the skills to homebrew a custom solution. Neither are good enough for the mass market.
Things are slowly changing however, as companies from outside the home automation industry look to expand their reach into new markets. Two solutions coming to market this year have the potential to jumpstart a wider consumer interest in automating their homes. They are:
· HomeKit from Apple.
· Brillo and Weave from Google.
Apple HomeKit was announced by Apple in June 2014. Fast-forward one-year later and we are starting to see the first HomeKit-compatible devices hitting the market. iHome, Elgato, ecobee3, Insteon, and Lutron are the first out of the gate that allow you to control things ranging from thermostats to doors and windows. HomeKit is a framework introduced in iOS 8 (Apple’s operating system) that will allow iOS devices to detect, configure, and control devices in their home that “speak” the HomeKit language. Users then use Siri to provide voice activation for their home devices. They can also create “macros” that allow control over multiple devices at once using a single command. For example, asking to “prepare the bedroom” could dim your lights, turn on the ceiling fan, and set the thermostat to your sleep time preferences.
HomeKit is one of many frameworks offered by Apple. Some others include HealthKit, WatchKit, CloudKit, and PassKit. These so called “Kits” provide a highly structured mechanism to third-party developers to safely and securely interact with the core of the iOS system. However, there is a price to pay for the security and access, namely the reality of being locked into the Apple ecosystem. This might prove to be both a blessing and curse. Apple users tend to spend more money for apps and thus are more likely to buy automation hardware. However, from a market share perspective, iOS devices are dwarfed by the sheer number of Android devices out there. We might be left with a situation much like we are seeing with Apple Pay and Google Pay. While Google has had NFC payment as part of Android for many years, it did not get the same adoption that Apple Pay is enjoying. In fact, this has caused Google to re-engineer Google Pay (now called Android Pay) into a much more Apple Pay-like payment system. Perhaps smartphone-based home automation technologies will follow a similar path whereby Apple makes home automation “cool” while Google brings it to the masses.
Speaking of Google second attempts, the company just announced two new initiatives aimed squarely at automation. First is Brillo, a stripped down version of Android that is meant to run on everything. Brillo is aimed to become the operating system of the Internet of Things, of which home automation is an industry ripe for the picking. The second is Weave, a communications protocol that can run independent of Brillo, which allows all those “things” to talk with each other. These two efforts are a result of lessons learned from their Android@Home initiative, that they launched in 2011 and subsequently killed.
Google is taking a much broader view than just home automation, but the home is the most likely environment to see immediate adoption of Brillo/Weave-compatible devices. After all, it was the home that Google’s Sundar Pichai used as context to explain these two new platforms during the Google I/O Event. Notably absent from the Brillo/Weave announcement, however, was any launch partners. This stands in stark contrast to Apple’s WWDC announcement of HomeKit last year, where it was proudly declared on stage as to which companies they were working with. This is a bit disconcerting from the perspective of hoping to find a definitive way forward on popularizing demand for home automation. Google does own Nest, maker of the smart thermostat and smoke detector, but two products do not make an “integrated home.”
Perhaps the ambition of being more than just a home automation platform will cause Brillo and Weave to take longer to gestate. If Google truly envisions these two platforms as being the heart of the Internet of Things, which will include such diverse industries as transportation and industrial control, then a slower and more thoughtful development may be in order for Brillo and Weave. But will it be fast enough to prevent Apple HomeKit from becoming the automation standard? For now, there is too little to judge the technical aspects of Brillo and Weave, which are due to be released for developer preview sometime later this year.
Regardless of who comes out on top, this resurgent and external interest in home automation is good for the industry as a whole. The automotive industry is once again an exciting market because of new players such as Tesla, and the possibilities of what Apple and Google are bringing to car technology. Hopefully the same excitement can be ignited in the home automation industry.
Finally, for the hardcore open source enthusiasts out there, I would be remiss in not highlighting OpenHAB, an open source home automation framework that has been around for roughly 5 years. OpenHAB is looking to provide a platform by which companies and makers can homebrew their own home automation solutions. Given the growing interest in open architectures and solutions, OpenHAB might just be the dark horse in the race to ubiquitous home automation.
What are your thoughts, will one of the technology powerhouses finally make home automation a reality for the masses? Or will we see an open source solution become a viable alternative? Let us know in the comments.
Michael Parks, P.E. is the owner of Green Shoe Garage, a custom electronics design studio and technology consultancy located in Southern Maryland. He produces the S.T.E.A.M. Power podcast to help raise public awareness of technical and scientific matters. Michael is also a licensed Professional Engineer in the state of Maryland and holds a Master’s degree in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins University.
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