These are wild times

From computer, white goods and device manufacturers to software and entertainment suppliers, some of the world’s most powerful companies are trying to dominate the home automation market. Some are established players; others are new entrants hoping to catch the next consumer trend.

As the technology moves from closed, proprietary systems to mainstream hardware and software standards, these big players see lower barriers to entry and the opportunity for massive economies of scale that increase revenue potential all along the value chain. Where this will ultimately take the technology is a matter of conjecture, but we can see where the technology is headed.

In addition to competing at the product and system level, the big players are all competing for the ultimate prize, which is access to the consumer and control over that relationship, enabling the distribution and management of everything from services to media to advertising.

Mixed emotions from consumers

Consumers, meanwhile, are casting an intrigued but wary eye on all these products and promises. On the positive side, prospects for energy savings, greater convenience and improved peace of mind appeal to homeowners across the economic spectrum.

On the negative side, customers are already frustrated with the complexity and chaos of multiple interfaces and controls, from entertainment center remotes to HVAC to security system panels. How are they going to respond when the fridge starts arguing with the television set over who’s in charge of the air conditioner?

Even more important, consumers are worried about maintaining privacy and a sense of control over their environment. They don’t want to be advertising targets, guinea pigs for experimental technology or pawns in a global battle for the consumer automation market.

The challenge for systems integrators

Faced with confusing, competing and sometimes conflicting technologies, where are consumers likely to turn for help? Who will be seen as the consumer advocate, offering unbiased advice and a way to simplify the user experience? The obvious answer is the independent installer/integrator.

No matter how many different products from different manufacturers are in a system, the consumer’s most important relationship is likely to be with the systems integrator who designs, installs and maintains the interface between the home and the outside world. Not only will consumers expect this interface to integrate all the devices inside the home, they’ll expect it to give them access to the outside world ― on their terms.

It’s a great opportunity for integrators, but meeting these expectations profitably demands a new approach to systems development. The patchwork, proprietary technologies you’ve probably been working with so far can’t deliver the benefits consumers are now looking for. And as more manufactures make more devices available to consumers, integrators are being forced to spend even more time on low-profit installation and maintenance tasks.

Think back to the personal computer market from just a few years ago. Devices that consumers now take for granted, such as scanners and CDROM recorders, used to be an installation nightmare. Finding the right drivers, choosing the right communication port, and configuring memory and interrupts just to make a single device work took hours or even days. It required specialized knowledge and constant relearning with every new product. Manufacturers couldn’t afford to help every consumer, and consumers resented paying for tech support just to get their computers to turn on. Now imagine a personal computer with dozens and dozens of appliances, devices, sensors and connections; that’s where home automation technology is taking the integrator’s business. It’s clearly not a model for sustained success ― or even survival.

Bringing the chaos under control

Enough of the bad news. Where’s the solution to all this?

The good news is that integrators can now take advantage of a new class of device-independent software that easily integrates multivendor installations, delivering the information and services consumers want while shielding them from complexity and unwanted intrusions.

Taking a closer look

A good example of this new approach is SYStm Automation Software from Premise Systems. Inside the home, SYS can intelligently connect over 7,000 devices, ranging from lighting, security and HVAC to phones, home entertainment and personal digital assistants. SYS already connects to most products in these categories today and supports emerging standards such as Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) and OLE for Process Control (OPC). Outside the home, the operating system provides a secure, customer-controlled gateway to the Internet, giving homeowners their choice of online services, along with remote communication and control capabilities.

By letting integrators easily reuse software components and eliminating the time required to learn new applications when adopting new product lines, SYS is already reducing integration times by as much as 80%. Both homeowners and integrators interact with SYS via web-based interfaces, so it’s easy to make changes or add new features either on site or remotely. With the installation bottleneck no longer limiting their business capacity, systems integrators can dramatically increase their selling and consulting activities.

These new software environments represent a fundamentally different approach to automation software. They’re based on industry standards, not proprietary technology, and they’re designed to embrace components from all manufacturers and give consumers the widest possible range of choices. They can tie disconnected subsystems together while providing seamless connectivity to the Internet. And addressing one of the core concerns of homeowners, this new class of software makes it much easier for integrators to put control back in the hands of their customers.

What’s the big deal about standards?

The technical difficulties in the PC arena were eased considerably by the convergence toward a common operating system, Ethernet networking, Plug and Play, and other formal or de facto industry standards. An even more dramatic example of the power of standards is the Internet. Even when the people on it aren’t speaking the same language, their computers are. Without worldwide standards to define how data is packaged and transported, there’s no way the Internet could’ve taken off the way it has.

Those Internet standards are at the heart of this new revolution in home automation, too. The rules that let an Apple in France talk to an IBM in Fargo are the same rules that will let an ABC brand audiovisual system talk to an XYZ brand security system.

Implications for installer/integrators

These new software approaches solve the customer demand for integrated simplicity and help position the installer/integrator as the true customer advocate in this chaotic market.

However, doing a better job of serving your existing markets is only part of the story; you can also expand your market reach with these new software solutions. First, you can expand business within your current customer base by offering a wider range of components and solutions. Second, you can expand into midrange markets that can’t afford today’s technology. These standard technologies are less expensive and more powerful than proprietary systems. Off-the-shelf hardware and software is finally poised to put high-end automation within the reach of the mid-range customer. Being able to put a simpler, friendlier face on the technology should also attract homeowners who aren’t willing to put up with the complexity of today’s systems.

With device margins going down, this new software can also transform your business from device-focused installation services to higher value-added systems integration services. You can take advantage of smarter technology to spend less time fiddling and fixing and more time selling and consulting.

Expanding your business model even further, you can also respond to the drop in device margins and installation business by shifting to more-profitable networking and systems integration services, where hourly rates are significantly higher than installation rates. With these industry-standard technologies (e.g., Internet Protocol, Ethernet), systems integration training and information is more widely accessible than ever before.

Where do we go from here?

It’s exciting to see so many appliance, computer and entertainment suppliers join the home automation fray. It’s also a bit scary because forces this powerful can have a profound effect on any market. Over on the demand side, meanwhile, consumers already leery of living in electronic mazes are looking for somebody to make it all work and make it all safe, simple and secure. That’s where the opportunity lies for systems integrators equipped with the right technologies, tools and business approach.

The benefits of this new software technology

Without getting into a lot of details, we can explore the benefits of the new software technology behind solutions such as SYS. The general name is object-oriented software, which simply means that programs are created with modular building blocks called objects.

Traditional programming creates software a line at a time, usually ending up with long, complex programs that are difficult to fix or improve. Trying to reuse sections of these programs by stitching them together in new ways is risky and frustrating. And in automation, proprietary software requires specialized knowledge that few programmers possess.

In contrast, these new self-contained software modules are designed to be easier to connect and reconnect so you change programs or create new ones. You can even buy off-the-shelf objects to plug into your programs.

Here are the key benefits:


Simplicity. Instead of programming the idiosyncrasies of every individual device, you deal with general classes of devices, such as light switches or speakers. The devices behave according to the rules assigned for their class; change the rules once, and every device in that class changes its behavior.

Productivity. Imagine that you’ve just created an energy-saving routine for one customer, and now you’d like to offer it to all your customers. With modular software, you simply plug this new module into every customer’s system. (With systems such as SYS, you can even add new modules remotely.) With traditional software, you’d have to weave the new capability into every system, one at a time.

Power. Not only can you reuse software building blocks, it’s also easier to build much more sophisticated control systems that go beyond simple schedules to incorporate lifestyle scenarios. Let’s say you want to program a scenario called “Quiet Evening” in which noise and light levels are carefully controlled and interruptions are eliminated. Any device that plugs into the system will know how to behave when the homeowner asks for the Quiet Evening scenario.

Ubiquity. The pool of skilled programmers for this new technology is wide and deep since this is the programming approach that students learn in school today and apply on the job throughout the computer industry.

This technology has already proven its value in mainstream computing (the vast majority of commercial software is written this way). It’s time to apply the benefits to home automation ― particularly when the industry is changing as quickly as it is today.

© 2001 Premise Systems, Inc.