The traditional HA market is undergoing two rapid and important changes. Potential clients are no longer just the wealthy, the technically-enabled or industrial/commercial users, but are now ordinary consumers. At the same time, the scope of what is possible or expected has changed, due in large part to the changes brought about by the Internet. The realization that everyone and everything could be hooked up to a network has been a fundamental change. Everyone involved in the industry has to examine how these changes affect their company.
These changes are accompanied by a fundamental problem with the HA label used by the industry. As have many of you, I have struggled to explain to people what the HA industry is. Visions of toasters popping seem to come to people’s minds for some reason when they hear about Home automation. What’s in a name? As it happens, a lot. Dr. Sibylle Meyer of the Berliner Institut fÃ¼r Sozialforschung GmbH has done research that shows that consumers don’t know what is meant by terms such as “Home Automation”, “Smart” or “Intelligent”. At the same time, they are just as suspicious of what these terms mean although they are favorable to solutions that are proposed to them. This suggests that it is to the industry’s advantage to put the emphasis on the benefits provided and not on the Home Automation label.
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In actual fact, the technology allows devices to send messages and exchange information between devices and their users. In other words, we are in the Network business. The race is on to connect everything to everything else. The reality is that a printer, a computer and a light switch can be, and often will be, linked by the same network.
The potential market is now virtually unlimited. Anybody in the industry can rattle off convenience, security and energy conservation scenarios that are available now using off the shelf software and hardware. We are now confronted with a fundamentally different clientele. The technological enthusiasts, the wealthy, the visionaries and commercial users have been replaced by ordinary consumers who act in fundamentally different ways. Understanding this market is the key to unlocking a vast treasure chest of potential and eager clients.
What do these consumers want? Simply put, the right functions in a product at the right price. They also want speed, convenience and entertainment. The consumer marketplace ruthlessly eliminates products which do not meet these criteria. Consumers do not study application notes or take risks. The Beta-VHS story shows that functions, such as six-hour recording, are more important than technical details such as transport mechanisms. Consumers are also dependent on standards. These can be de facto as with Windows, or set by an industry organization as for credit card transactions or set by an organization such as the EIA.
The direction that a Network business should take can be analyzed by examining two technologies that have become omnipresent “overnight”; fax machines and the Internet.
The fax story is perhaps more interesting because it is less well known. Faxes were first sent inâ€¦.1843, over telegraph lines! Faxes were first used with phones in 1900 and photographs were sent across the ocean by cable in the 1920’s. However, until the Group 1 standard was issued by the CCITT in 1968, it was necessary to have machines from the same manufacturer, and sometimes the same model, to communicate by fax. Even the Group 1 standard was not a success, as the United States did not sign on. The Group 2 standard in 1976 was the first with universal acceptance but it was for analog transmission only. It was not until the Group 3 standard for digital faxes was issued in 1980 that the fax industry started to grow. A key element of this standard was the provision for flexibility that allowed manufacturers to try different schemes as long as they adhered to the basic protocol. The best ideas were eventually incorporated in the standard. There are now 18 million fax machines and each additional machine exponentially increases the value of the others because they are all on the same network.
The Internet as we know it was preceded by Arpanet, which introduced the TCP/IP protocol. The next step was the HTTP standard which allowed a message to have both data and a description of how to print on the screen. This combination of a standard messaging scheme and the flexibility of presentation was the key to the emergence of Mosaic, Netscape, Explorer and the Internet as we know it today. Another important element has been the structure that permits the Internet protocol to evolve to meet user’s needs. These factors have resulted in the approximately 57 million internet users across the world.
What is the message we can get from the above information? Consumers are willing to buy reasonably priced solutions as long as there is no danger that their purchase will become obsolete i.e. there is a standard. Manufacturers also need standards before making the large investments necessary for low cost production. An ideal standard will allow developers to differentiate their products with features and include the flexibility to evolve over time according to the needs of the market. A wide variety of available network devices makes it possible to create solutions for different consumers. Add to this the need to address international markets, and the case seems clear for standards.
It seems clear that no winner will emerge from among the present device networking standards. They address different markets, each has an installed market base and all have transport protocols that are suited for various tasks. One option for developing a new standard would be to take the best elements from each standard and make a new standard. This is the approach that is being used in Europe where EIB, EHSA and BatiBUS are converging, a process which is proving to be long and difficult.
The other possibility is to add a Home Plug’n PlayÃ” messaging layer to different transport protocols. This allows manufacturers to develop Home Plug’n Play compliant versions of products, with the option of changing transport protocols for different markets. End users can mix and match products from different transport protocols, using the appropriate bridges and gateways, and the improved information sharing capacities will make much more elaborate and user-friendly friendly scenarios possible.
What’s in it for Home Plug’n Play? Simply put, a much bigger market for everyone. The CEBusÃ’ Standard is presently the only protocol with a Home Plug’n Play layer but there are no barriers stopping other protocols from joining in. The Home Plug’n Play Specification was specifically designed to be added to different protocols. Its Common Application Language (CAL) has a control language, incorporates a flexible, extendible method for describing devices and greatly facilitates interoperability between different transport protocols. All this and no royalty payments!
It is tempting for manufacturers to say that they don’t need Home Plug’n Play. They’re right, only if they want to operate in the Home Automation industry as it exists now, where less than one percent of North American households have home automation systems. Everyone is winner if we move to a networking business model. It is clear that only an interoperability specification such as Home Plug’n Play will take us to the next level as no single transport protocol is going to become a de facto standard. The question is simple, if Home Plug’n Play doesn’t take us to the next level, what will?
I would like to thank Ken McConnell who was the source for the details on the evolution of the fax machine.