Lessons from DIY Networking: Solid Apps, Great Features, Cool Designs
The home-technology integration channel could learn some things from DIY routers and apps, especially when it comes to industrial design.
Lately on CE Pro we've been talking home networking, particularly trends in remote monitoring and recurring monthly revenue (RMR) for home-technology integrators.
What we haven't spoken too much about is DIY activity in the category and the channel, and what we might learn from it. In my eyes, three very important themes come up: 1) the simplicity of DIY router apps, 2) the richness of their feature set and 3) aesthetics.
Our stuff -- the custom-centric networking gear -- may have more of the enterprise-grade features required of demanding networks, but that doesn't mean we can't incorporate some of the swell features found in the products.
DIY-Centric ‘Wireless Mesh’
This year saw a surge in the new category of “Wi-Fi mesh” networking, popularized by start-ups like eero, Luma and Securifi. Competitor Google Wifi just started shipping. Even Ubiquiti, a bastion of high-performance networking gear, has rolled out a consumer-centric Wi-Fi mesh solution called AmpliFi to compete with the DIY start-ups.
These solutions incorporate a router and access points — with three devices recommended for complete home coverage — and an app that makes it simple for non-techies to configure security, parental controls and other settings.
Yes we understand that, despite their superior apps and generally strong feature sets, “a lot of power-user features and functionality aren’t there,” as Ihiji co-founder Mike Maniscalco explains in a review of Google’s OnHub router. “For example, almost all of them currently lack DynDNS and VPN capabilities, which are critical for remote support.”
Furthermore, Maniscalco explains, most of the devices force users to perform all of the configurations via mobile apps associated with their home account, “making it tough for a professional to manage it.”
Even so, the channel does see value in these products, which are finding their way through traditional A/V distributors, reps and consultants.
Access is working with eero on a new onboarding process that allows integrators to configure systems using their own eero app, and then “hand it over to the client so the technician doesn’t have to touch the customer’s phone,” says Access CEO Hagai Feiner.
Feiner adds that he is working with eero to develop some integrator-friendly features for the erstwhile DIY solution.
Embrace Aesthetics Impact
There’s another thing we can learn from the DIY-networking movement: Design matters. Routers typically reside in a basement closet at the edge of the home — the worst possible place if you want to spray the property with Wi-Fi.
But “your router works better when it’s out in the open,” as the Google OnHub marketers rightly note. For this reason, TP-Link offers interchangeable shells for its OnHub product, and even partnered with artists and designers to inspire new designs for the shells. Amateur makers can download plans and designs online.
Once we start thinking about routers as pretty things exposed on a living room shelf rather than clunky black boxes stashed far, far away, we can imagine other features that add value to the networking hub.
Now, all of a sudden, multi-colored LEDs on the device become meaningful because you can actually see them. Most of the out-in-the-open consumer routers these days look cool and boast LEDs used for system feedback and ambient lighting. Some feature onboard displays, speakers, handy push-buttons and other niceties.
In promoting AmpliFi — a nifty white cube with a round display on its face and a ring of LED lights at its base — Ubiquiti declares, “Your Wi-Fi router is no longer something to hide.” The device shows the time and date, along with the Wi-Fi signal strength, or it can be toggled to display the current upstream and downstream Internet speeds. The company is coming out with a “modular IoT” version that promises to do even more.
Other routers boast more active controls. Securifi has a small touchscreen on its face for configuring network settings or controlling smart home devices. The Asus version of Google OnHub has a sensor at the top that allows users to increase bandwidth of high-priority services like multiroom audio with the swipe of a hand.
Let’s see if our industry can create aesthetically appealing products to be located optimally in plain view, while delivering the enterprise-grade features.
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Julie Jacobson is founding editor of CE Pro, the leading media brand for the home-technology channel. She has covered the smart-home industry since 1994, long before there was much of an Internet, let alone an Internet of things. Currently she studies, speaks, writes and rabble-rouses in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V, wellness-related technology, biophilic design, and the business of home technology. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, and earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a recipient of the annual CTA TechHome Leadership Award, and a CEDIA Fellows honoree. A washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player, Julie currently resides in San Antonio, Texas and sometimes St. Paul, Minn. Follow on Twitter: @juliejacobson Email Julie at email@example.com
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