Intelligent homes are nothing new. Manufacturers like Crestron, AMX, Control4, Elan, Savant, and others have been playing the home automation game for years, decades even. These OG home automation systems require a custom integrator to install, usually have some hard-wired element, and are intuitive, sophisticated, feature-rich, and highly functional. Of course, with greater functionality comes greater cost, and many mainstream homeowners simply can’t afford them.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, new sensor-based smart home products that are controllable from a homeowner’s smart phone or tablet are exploding onto the home-tech scene, running rampant on crowd-funding sites, and fostering a vibrant smart home do-it-yourself scene that is making home automation fans out of even the most technologically feebleminded. Just look at the popularity of wireless smart LED bulbs like Philips Hue. The ‘smart home’ is inexpensive, modular, far less feature oriented, usually operated wirelessly, largely app-based, and totally DIY.
Will the smart home and automated home be able to peacefully coexist? (So far, so good.) Will there be a blending of sensor-based manufacturers and traditional all-encompassing home control? We spoke with home automation players AMX, Savant, BitWise Controls, MiOS, and Control4 to get a better picture of what the smart home of the future will look like.
The Power of the Mass Market
This year’s Consumer Electronics Show was a veritable feast for the eyes. That is, if your eyes were hungry for sensor/app-based smart home automation technology. What this reveals is that home automation is no longer a concept for just the rich, but for anyone with a smart device. These new DIY products are affordable, easy to operate, and have that certain lifestyle factor that is tied into the apps and devices used to operate them. The explosive growth of the smart home has at least one big home automation company rethinking their position. Savant, a major player in the higher-end home automation market, recently announced their Select control system that costs less than a grand per room. This was on the heels of the company hiring the former Barnes & Noble exec responsible for the Nook, William Lynch, as CEO. By all indications, the company is moving to a more midmarket position.
Despite Savant’s taking a step toward the mainstream, the difference between the two avenues to get intelligent home technology in the home is vast. It’s like having the choice between a Mini Cooper and a Bugatti, with only a few models in between. It’s so vast, in fact, that neither views the other as direct competition. Indeed, veteran home automation companies seem to welcome the attention that these DIY companies are bringing to the category as a whole.
“The proliferation of these types of systems is beneficial to the industry as a whole, increasing the visibility of the technology and is capabilities. The more companies involved, the faster the technologies behind them will advance,” says Adam Gershon, product manager at AMX. “We don’t see them as direct competitors…perhaps as complimentary competitors who bring valuable visibility as to what’s possible.”
In the future, however, the possibility that the dramatic lines that exist now between the DIY and integrated smart home markets will begin to fade. “The gap between the DIY model and the home automation model will largely blur together over time as the proliferation of smart devices in the home continues to grow exponentially,” says Jim Carroll, EVP corporate strategy & business development for Savant. “That said, the homeowner who wants to manage their entire Internet-of-things ecosystem, all from a single app running on their choice of the most popular mobile devices and tablets, will need a comprehensive and customizable solution.”
The Smart Home Conundrum
And therein lies the problem for the DIY smart home market. Currently, there is no widely accepted standard for unifying the disparate DIY smart home apps a user might have. “Right now there are more home automation products and connected devices on the market than ever before, but there is not a true singular standard for interoperability. This means that consumers are now juggling apps and interfaces like they used to juggle the various remotes on the coffee table,” says BitWise Controls’ CTO, Mark Buster. BitWise acts as a bridge between the DIY and pro smart home worlds by offering modules to integrators that allow them to easily add popular DIY smart home products. “The Nest Learning Thermostat and Sonos audio systems are perfect examples of the convergence of the traditional custom integration world and DIY. Not long ago, technology integration firms wouldn’t recommend these types of products be integrated into complex systems, but with their overwhelming popularity, it’s impossible to do that anymore. The reality is that these are mainstream technologies that are now part of everyday life,” adds BitWise founder and CEO, Lance Beck.
Control4, for one, has adopted Simple Device Discovery Protocol (SDDP), which provides a foundation for devices to work with each other and integrate into the Control4 ecosystem. “By automatically finding and adding SDDP-enabled devices to the platform, we allow for a much simpler set-up, giving homeowners the ability to incorporate the products they love into a complete home automation system,” says Paul Williams, VP of security & communications products of Control4. In other words, Control4 is taking all those DIY smart home products, scooping them up, and folding them into their ecosystem.
The glut of smart home products has consumers excited, but the sheer number of disparate products could be detrimental. “While the diversity of products that are emerging will ultimately be good for the consumer (think innovation, versatility, and price), there will be a period of time when this could confuse customers and slow down adoption. There will be too many point solutions rather than homeowners participating in existing ecosystems,” says MiOS president Lew Brown. “In 18 to 24 months, we’ll probably see some extensive consolidation.” According to Brown, MiOS is the only smart home gateway in the market that guarantees interoperability with all 1000+ certified Z-Wave devices globally.
All this begs the question: Is the new-school smart home more than the sum of its parts, and can those parts even be added to create a unified whole? Some companies, like Revolv and Smart Things, are striving to do just that by giving the user the power to integrate his or her own one-off smart-home apps into an overarching DIY system and app. By putting the power in the hands of the nonexperts, functionality, sophistication, and features are understandably restricted. “The important thing is to reiterate what it means to have a truly connected home. Often consumers think that home automation is having an app that turns one light off, a different app to set your thermostat and another to arm your security system – when in fact home automation is hitting just one button that can do all of that for you,” says Williams.
So where to we see the future? Or better yet, where would we like to see the future of the smart homes? In short, we want to see more models between that ultra-hip and affordable Mini Cooper and that unattainable Bugatti.