Are Home Control Systems Needed?

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Why bother with home control when you can operate nearly everything via iPhone and iPad apps?


Apr. 11, 2012 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Do you really need that big, fancy home control system?

Maybe you can operate all the things you need to control via your smartphone or iPad/tablet. After all, apps to control electronics systems with these devices are becoming available every day.

Even some custom electronics (CE) pros, who make much of their living selling home control systems, are starting to favor an app-based home control approach.

“We’re already used to using the iPad or iPhone for everything else,” says Gordon van Zuiden, founder of electronics systems installation company cyberManor in California’s Silicon Valley. “There are so many extensions to this platform, along with the hundred of apps out there.”

Soon, nearly any electronic system in your house can be controlled via an app. Many audio/video, lighting and security systems can be controlled via iPad and iPhone apps. Heating and air conditioning can be controlled via apps connected to wireless thermostats when you’re not home. Van Zuiden also points to automated sprinkler systems that allow control of certain areas of a yard via a picture of it loaded to your smartphone or tablet, an upcoming app from Jandy for pool and spa controls, LiftMaster for garage doors—you name it.

That doesn’t mean there’s no place for high-end home control systems that tie together all a home’s systems under one common interface. The key word here may be high-end. Van Zuiden and others see home control systems remaining largely relegated to use in large, millionaire-type homes. “For the rest of us, having an app-based home is perfectly fine. And it can be upgraded over night,” he says.

Home automation for the masses is still possible via the array of mobile apps now available and becoming available. One drawback may be having several different interfaces to deal with for security, audio/video, lighting, et al, but we already navigate many interfaces with the apps we’re using now, van Zuiden argues.

Only Some Are Doing It Well

“You can go to an [iPad] app to control your thermostat, and it’s like having a button on a touchpanel [from a control company],” says Scott Varn of Harmony Interiors, a custom electronics installation firm in Asheville, N.C.  “Sonos has proven that if you just make a good interface, like Apple, you get a really great user experience. The problem is that only some are doing it well. We’ve looked at five apps that control your TV, and none of them are mature.” What Varn means is that most apps, at least for TV and home entertainment control, can’t do macros that send a series of commands to different devices. So now you’ve got a number of buttons on an iPad to control one home entertainment system. It’s akin to having five remotes.

And having a two-handed remote like an iPad is far from ideal. A one-handed remote with joystick-like control is much more intuitive and tactile for TV and home theater use. 

For housewide control, a bigger screen is often better. And that’s where tablets like iPads excel. With Sonos and Control4, for example, the user experience is much better on an iPad because you can see all the sliders and it’s easier to browse your music library, Varn says.

Sonos is discontinuing own controller, because you could buy a tablet to perform its functions.

Security camera companies are also making their own apps so they don’t need a home control company, says Varn.

Benefits of Home Control-less Control

The benefit to installation companies like those run by van Zuiden and Varn is not sending out trucks and technicians to handle service calls for control systems. That could be handled by the manufacturers. Replacing home control systems with multiple apps could also preclude home systems installers from having to upgrade home control systems to new operating systems every couple of years. It also saves us consumers money.

In addition, big service providers like ADT with its Pulse security/home control platform and Comcast’s Xfinity Home Control offer basic control of security, lights and thermostats via smartphones. A big draw to these subscription-based services is the mobile connectivity, so lights or thermostats can be adjusted while busy people aren’t home. The systems can also send alerts and allow people to peek in on their homes via security cameras.

Research firm Parks Associates finds that consumers are already creating overlapping use cases among different platforms. Parks says that 42 percent of U.S. consumers with a media tablet use the device to check listings while watching television.

According to Parks, household penetration worldwide of Internet-connectable CE products as of year-end 2011 is:

  • Smart TVs—67 million.
  • Internet-connectable Blu-ray Players—22 million.
  • Internet-connectable Game Consoles—75 million.
  • Digital Video Media Players—14 million,
  • Media Tablets—74 million.

For another opinion on this, read Pain in the App.



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