The Problem with Home Automation

We saw a resurgence of home automation systems at CES 2008. But with no single technology standing out, we still have a mishmash of incompatible products.

home automation choices

At CES this year, there was a resurgence among purveyors of home automation systems. Companies like Control-4 and Monster, among others, were showing complete systems for home control. Each manufacturer had the same general selection of keypads, touch-screens, remote-controlled light switches, and plug-in modules. However, each offering was based on one of several incompatible standards, including Universal Powerline Association (UPA), HomePlug, Z-wave, and INSTEON.

And therein lies the problem: With no single technology standing out as being the best in flexibility, performance, reliability and cost, we have a mishmash of incompatible products, which is being blamed for the lack of growth in this category. However, I wonder if this is true. Or could it be that no one is yet offering compelling products at a compelling price?

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From what I heard at the show, the retail sector for home automation is continuing flat, while the pro/dealer segment is growing apace. This tells me that some level of home automation is becoming de rigueur in higher-end homes, and that’s great (though, if ordered as a check-off item, one wonders how much of it is actually used). Still, once that relatively small market saturates, where are the products for the rest of us? I’m a home control junkie myself, but don’t know anyone else who is. I’ve met people who mucked with X-10 at some time and gave up, but no one who has heard of any of the new stuff.

Steve Lee, a Director of Sales and Marketing at Smartlabs (creators of INSTEON) told me that they were focusing away from both licensing, and some of their more “blue-sky” plans (like INSTEON toasters), and are concentrating instead on producing a steady stream of solid practical products for their pro dealers and installers. He used their recent OutletLinc and IRLinc products as examples of things to come. This refocusing may explain why Smartlabs decided not to field a booth at CES.

So what we have is a bunch of incompatible standards (using powerline, RF, or both) battling it out in the pro area, competing on service, breadth of offering, and reliability, but not so much on price. Meanwhile, no one is focusing on the consumer, who doesn’t seem much interested anyway.

Though concentrating on dealers, Smartlabs and its competitors try to attract more consumers into the fold by seeding the retail market with “starter kits” which provide a few switches, modules, and lower-end controllers (no $300 touchpads here). Problem is, it’s hard for the typical consumer to understand why he would want the kit, or how it could be worth the 3-figure price. More compelling kits would help, but it’s always the application that drives the technology, and alas, the “killer app” that will drive consumers to take the kits home is still undiscovered.

Bottom Line: After almost 30 years of showing promise, and even with a whole new generation of improved technology, 2008 finds the home automation business still searching for its mass market. The good news is that if you need it, you can buy it (though it isn’t cheap), the bad news is that you need to bet on the right technology, or risk premature obsolescence of your gear.

On a related topic, a lot a noise was made at the show about powerline broadband, claiming that the killer app was shuttling high-speed Internet (for video) around your house. Although speeds of 100-200 Mb/s were quoted for standards like HD-PLC, Homeplug A/V and others (yet another mishmash), people told me privately that 30 Mb/s is the best that could be sustained. This compares poorly with 802.11n, and reminds me that several years ago, consumers snubbed cheaper, even faster, wired technologies (remember HomePNA?) for what was initially really bad wireless 802.11b. Though powerline technology is advancing, I’m not sure it’s producing any winners yet for either the home automation or home networking spaces.


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