Control4 CEO on Home Automation Standards, DIY, Pro Install

CEO Martin Plaehn discusses impact of DIY and mass-market home automation on Control4’s custom-install business and the smart home in general.

Control4 CEO Martin Plaehn
Julie Jacobson · January 17, 2014

The big news coming out of CES 2014 was the proliferation of do-it-yourself home automation systems and standalone smart devices – thermostats, light switches, bulbs, door locks, cameras and more.

What does that mean for a company like Control4 (Nasdaq: CTRL) that makes smart-home systems for professional installation?

“We love it,” said Control4 CEO Martin Plaehn in an interview with CE Pro during CES.

Besides the extra attention these newcomers bring to the industry, they also bring innovation and hardware that can only enhance the Control4 ecosystem, which already includes energy management, lighting controls, surveillance, communications and audio/video.

We saw this with Nest, for example, when Control4 announced it would be the first third-party control system to incorporate the thermostat into its environment.

“We might never make another thermostat,” says Plaehn, echoing the sentiment of the Control4 founders who built the company 10 years ago as a software provider that had to build its own hardware out of necessity.

He adds, “We love it that there’s all these new devices. We can use the innovation of the rest of the world as our supply chain.”

SDDP: Simplifying Custom Integration

Even with professional installation, there’s no denying systems must be much simpler to integrate and configure if the pros are to compete with mass-market offerings.

Control4 is on a mission to do just that with an initiative launched in 2012 called Simple Device Discovery Protocol (SDDP).

Partner products embedded with a little piece of SDDP code are automatically discovered on the Control4 network. Device drivers populate the configuration tools so the products are ready to be dragged-and-dropped into a system.

SDDP primarily has been adopted by niche product developers in the custom installation space, but we are now seeing more mainstream providers implementing the protocol.
Dish Networks announced in September at the CEDIA Expo that it would incorporate SDDP into its Hopper DVRs. TiVo made the same announcement at CES, joining Epson, Harman, Onkyo, Pioneer, Sharp, Sony, Toshiba, Yamaha and others.

RELATED: Dish Demos Z-Wave/ZigBee Home Automation via Hopper DVR

In a perfect world, consumers themselves would swap out their own components, and the system would reconfigure automatically to support the new devices.

“We don’t have that yet,” says Plaehn, adding that Control4 has done most of the heavy lifting already.

To take the auto-configuration concept even further, Plaehn says, you would want the system to automatically learn the inputs and outputs in an audio/video system, eliminating the need to write down which components are plugged into which ports … and then potentially transcribe the information incorrectly.

He thinks this could be done using HDMI’s Consumer Electronics Control (CEC), an established communications protocol for HDMI components.

“There’s a lot we can learn about inputs and outputs,” Plaehn says.

If Control4 can ping the HDMI I/Os in an entertainment stack, and import the information into its software, that would eliminate one major step in system configuration.

Mass Market for Home Automation

While mass-market movements in the connected home are good for the entire industry – custom-oriented companies included – they can also sour consumers on the smart-home experience.

During a recent roundtable discussion of original Control4 dealers, the group agreed that bad customer experiences were a major challenge for the industry.

Sold on the hype, many consumers are snapping up products and services that are not ready for prime time. Either that, or the customers simply aren’t equipped to install and enjoy products that are harder to configure than the advertisements suggest.

Plaehn worries, “I think there’s the risk that they have a bad experience [once] and then say, ‘I’ll wait.’”

The potential for bad customer experiences impedes the home-control industry more so than technology standards, or lack thereof, Plaehn thinks.

While no single standard dominates the category, there are plenty of good ones to choose from and it is “not going to be a winner-take-all situation,” Plaehn says. “This is not VHS vs. Betamax.”

Instead, companies like Control4 will adopt whatever protocol is required. We are seeing a number of multi-protocol hubs coming to market, such as WigWag and Revolv. Staples recently announced it would add ZigBee, Bluetooth and Insteon to its Connect home automation system, joining Z-Wave, Lutron ClearConnect and Wi-Fi as radios/protocols supported.

We might expect the same from Control4, which currently favors ZigBee and Wi-Fi/IP.

“If you want to be the center of the home,” Plaehn says, “you’re going to have to be Switzerland.”

Control4 certainly is benefiting from activity in the DIY/mass-market sector.

The company saw its stock price surge 70% in the two days following the announcement of Google’s $3.2 billion acquisition of Nest.

None of that craziness is getting to Control4, though.

“We’re doing exactly what we said we would do,” Plaehn says of the company’s commitment to “stay focused on providing the best customized solutions for the home and family.”

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  About the Author

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

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