History of Home Automation: Some Things Never Change
After 16 years of covering home automation we still see: no real standards, no retail business model, no utility success stories, no discernible Trojan horse, no relenting of the CE pro install channel.
A lot has changed in the 16 years I’ve been covering home automation. We now have sub-$500 touchscreens, smart phones that double as home controllers, metadata, and a computer – or 10 – in every household.
But then, some things never change. It’s remarkable how such a dynamic industry can, at times, be so stagnant.
Sixteen years ago, everyone thought that if we could just agree on a single home control standard, the category would explode.
Every device from every manufacturer would interoperate, installation would be a breeze, R&D costs would plummet, and consumers would fill their baskets in the “home automation” aisles. You know, like Ethernet.
Today, however, we still have no widely accepted home control standard (here comes the hate mail from Z-Wave, ZigBee, RF4CE and others) and we still have pundits swearing that, without standards, we are nothing.
Meanwhile, just as many home-control experts claim that standards don’t matter anymore. With so many inexpensive bridge devices, all of those disparate devices can interconnect one way or another.
For two decades, we have imagined home automation products stacked on rows of shelves in electronics and home-improvement stores.
Helpers in blue shirts and orange vests would advise on smart thermostats as deftly as they would on DVD players and screw drivers. Shoppers would snap up a few automated dimmers on impulse as they checked out. In reality, not a single home-control system has succeeded in mass-market retail, despite major efforts from manufacturers and retailers alike (with apologies to X10’s Dave Rye).
Even Radio Shack failed at its most recent attempt to sell the stuff.
Enthusiasts go online to research and buy their home-automation gear. Everyone else lets home automation come to them, by way of professional installers.
The custom electronics professional is a dying breed. Soon everything will be plug-and-play and we won’t need a pro to integrate our gear.
They can keep on saying it, but it won’t come true. Indeed, products have become simpler to install over the years and that trend will continue. At the same time, though, more and more gear will interconnect, making the electronic house more complicated to manage, and the CE pro more appealing to hire.
When we started EH Publishing in 1994, the conversation about home automation revolved around energy savings.
Countless utilities launched incessant trials for demand-side management, trying to get consumers to shed loads such as pool pumps (always the pool pump!) when electricity was at peak demand.
Even before the hybrid car, we imagined a Prius Effect in which knowledge of a 12-cent energy savings would convince consumers to conserve.
The utilities keep on plugging away today, and manufacturers keep on hoping that these smart energy projects will spur broad adoption of whole-house control – for things like turning off the pool pump from your iPhone.
Smart thermostats, largely driven by utility initiatives, were supposed to be the Trojan horse that got regular people hooked on home automation. Never happened.
Likewise, home automation was going to sneak into the house by way of the cable box, telephone service, cable modem or some other mass-market deployment. Nada. Xfinity (Comcast), AT&T, Verizon, Cisco and other big brands are still plugging away, to no avail.
Julie Jacobson, recipient of the 2014 CEA TechHome Leadership Award, is co-founder of EH Publishing, producer of CE Pro, Electronic House, Commercial Integrator, Security Sales and other leading technology publications. She currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. She's a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player currently residing in Carlsbad, Calif. Email Julie at [email protected]
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