When home networking technology first hit the consumer market, systems were not always created for homeowner use. Often, products were retrofitted from commercial networking gear. The complexity of these systems meant that homeowners had to call specialists or professional installers when even slight modifications were needed. It quickly became obvious to integrators and manufacturers that there were several disadvantages to this model. Perhaps most importantly, homeowners were left with the perception that home networking technology was too complex and difficult for them to use.
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Home networking technology has improved tremendously in the last several years. Systems are created for home use and meant to be installed as the home is built or retrofitted to the homeowner’s specifications. However, many homeowners still believe that home networking products are not “user friendly” enough. In some instances, they are correct. The design of home technology today is still targeted to meet the needs of installers rather than the needs of homeowners.
Ultimately, this could affect the rate at which home networking technology is adopted by the average homeowner. For this reason, I believe it is as much to the advantage of builders, installers and integrators as it is to homeowners for home networking products to be designed and created and/or manufactured with the end users’ needs in mind. The goals of making products easy for homeowners to use and easy for integrators to install do not have to be mutually exclusive. And ease-of-use for homeowners can mean easier sales for installers.
Several products currently on the market exemplify the ease-of-use concept, but some integrators and installers have been hesitant to offer these products. It is understandable that integrators and installers want to make their installations as simple and efficient as possible, both for themselves and to cut down on customer costs and level of intrusion. Providing customers with solutions that are designed for ease of use is ultimately preferable. Psychologically, customers want to feel they can make simple changes to their systems without relying on the installer. If a system is unintimidating, flexible and easily upgradable or expandable, it is more likely to be purchased than a rigid or inflexible system.
Interfaces and Controllers
Smart Systems Technologies, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, creates and provides simple residential and light-commercial control solutions to mass-market customers through professional installer channels. The company’s goal is to provide customers with practical, efficient, multi-feature products at a compelling price. Among their offerings are fully integrated residential systems, which include security, lighting, energy management and appliance control.
Smart Systems’ touch screen interfaces are designed to make configuration changes easy on the customer. For example, one of Smart Systems’ main products for use with home networking systems is the em-power system, an icon-driven, touch screen interface. The touch screen essentially lets customers use their finger as a mouse, pointing and clicking their way to any configuration changes.
According to Keith Ostwald, director of new business deployment with Smart Systems, this ease-of-use design is unique for a professionally installed interface. “PC-based automation systems probably have this feature, but without the benefits of professional installation,” he says. “And professional products are normally designed at the exclusion of the customer.” Ostwald believes that combining professional installation and customer ease-of-use in Smart Systems’ products helps strategically position systems such as the em-power to appeal directly to the mass market. Homeowners have the benefits and usefulness of home control without needing to be an engineer to figure it out.
The traditional wiring for a home networking hub is punch-down wiring where the ends of clustered CAT-5 wiring are open and locked down into patch panels. Punch down is usually preferred by installers and integrators because the installation is so easy. However, once the wiring is punched-down, the integrator or installer must be called in to take out the wires and reconnect them. If a homeowner wants, for example, to add phone lines to a new room or connect an additional computer, that must be done professionally.
Another option is connectorized CAT-5 wiring, where the ends of the wiring are capped with RJ-45 plugs. Connectorized wiring allows consumers to re-assign communications lines to different rooms at will as easily as if they were plugging in a phone or fax to a standard wall jack. This option gives consumers more flexibility to expand, upgrade, or change their home networking “floor plan”.
Connectorized wiring does not take away from installer and integrator business. For the most part, large national installers understand that the best thing for their business is to provide homeowners with effective and easy to use solutions. A flexible system allows installers to upsell services and a friendly user interface is a necessity. Even if that solution cuts down on service calls, it ultimately allows for an easier sell and can possibly help to build a customer relationship for future services.
But some small integrators still mistakenly believe that the punchdown module ensures service calls and, therefore, additional money. In reality, low end truck rolls don’t result in much money for the integrator and customers shy away from systems that require service calls for minor configuration changes. Punch down philosophy is not the money maker it is perceived to be.
Self terminating F-Connectors
In homes where there is a decent sized video network, typically if a video port is not terminated there will be signal lost through that port, resulting in poor picture quality for the live ports. Self-terminating f-connectors have made it easy for homeowners to maintain strong and clear cable signals. These patented products, based on a built-in microswitch that prevents the overflow of extra signal, terminates the signal without a cap and insures a high quality picture for all live ports. This eliminates the need for homeowners to ensure that traditional caps remain attached to unused connectors and maximizes a customers’ ability to make changes to his system. Self-terminating f-connectors also minimize system problems since a cap can’t be accidentally removed, by a customer making system changes or by a child playing with the system unsupervised.
I addressed modular technology for retrofit solutions more in-depth in a recent Hometoys article entitled “Retrofit for Consumers – Trends and Options You Should Know”. However, it is worth mentioning here that potential retrofit customers have, in the past, been intimidated by the hassle of installation and cost of upgrades. Modular retrofit technology provides homeowners with an expandable bracket enclosure that accommodates separate modules, such as for phone distribution, computer networking and video distribution. When more features and functions are needed, homeowners need only clip another bracket on to the system. In addition to providing relatively simple installation and upgrades, retrofit technology is an ideal solution for customer ease-of-use.
In summary, modular designs and versatile, upgradable components are an important step toward insuring that homeowners get a structured wiring system that is customized to meet their unique needs. It is just as important that manufacturers continue to develop easy-to-install, easy-to-use, feature rich home networking technology. Builders and installers also need to be educated about the benefits of these products, both for better customer relationships as well as the immediate benefits to the customers.
The home networking market is not aiming to be a market of gadgetry, but rather a utility that is routinely included in homes. The less customers have to rely on outside help to maintain the system — and the more customer friendly and flexible those systems are — the more likely it is that home networking will see an increased rate of adoption.
Michael Jennison is President and CEO of Greyfox Systems, which he founded in 1994. He was CFO of Jennison Corporation, Greyfox’s predecessor company, between 1990 and 1994. He lead the company through its early development stages and developed the company’s successful growth strategy. Mr. Jennison is also Greyfox’s technical coordinator, forging partnerships with other companies. He holds a B.S. in Finance from Penn State University.
Established in 1994, Greyfox Systems is a highly respected pioneer in the home networking market and whose technology is the second-most installed in the industry today. Greyfox Systems produces and sells both home networking hubs and the underlying electrical and electronic components. Known for elegant and intelligent design, Greyfox Systems’ technology is behind some of the largest names in the home networking industry. The products are now also directly marketed through a growing national network of integrators under the Greyfox Systems label. Pass & Seymour, Greyfox Systems’ parent company, is the North American arm of Legrand, a $2.6 billion manufacturer of low-voltage electrical products. Legrand acquired Greyfox in 2001.