“Yet Another Home Net Standard Arrives,” blared the headlines of PCWorld on June 22 when Microsoft and friends announced the forthcoming Simple Control Protocol (SCP).
But that's not really the case. Amazingly, the folks in Redmond–so often derided as bullies in the standards arena–are leading the effort to take existing home-control standards and ready them for the mass market.
Specifically, Microsoft is teaming up with Smart LLC, Domosys, Itran, General Electric, Mitsubishi Electric Corp., and the CAL Interoperability Council (aka CEBus Industry Council) to weave CEBus and its Home Plug & Play corollary into a thinner, cheaper home-control protocol dubbed SCP.
“It's essentially the next generation of CEBus, with some nice IP [intellectual property] from Microsoft thrown in,” says Jeff Goodman, manager of residential products for GE Industrial Systems. Goodman's group is GE's link to Smart LLC (formerly Smart Corp.), the little giant that has struggled for five years to build a market for its CEBus-based home control systems. Last year, GE made an investment in Smart, and announced plans to market GE-Smart lighting- and appliance-control products through its vast dealer and consumer channels. A ringing endorsement for CEBus.
“What's out there is good enough,” says Goodman. “You just need convergence.”
And that's where SCP comes in. While it is not formally allied with Universal Plug and Play, SCP will link seamlessly to that IP-based networking protocol. The result will be the evasive missing link between the Internet and the light switch.
While automated light switches and other home-control systems preceded the Internet by a couple of decades, the home automation industry has missed out on the home-networking craze of the past two years—and all the capital and celebrity that goes with it.
With SCP, though, the glory could in fact spread to the lowly light switch, the eternal symbol of that which will never be the “killer app.”
Much of the background on CEBus, CAL, Home P&P, UPnP and Home API was recounted in a prescient article in the January, 2000, issue of HNN, excerpted below (skip to flashback, then come right back).
In a nutshell, Microsoft-led UPnP is a networking solution largely focused on PC-class products such as computers, peripherals and high-end entertainment devices. It utilizes the generic Internet protocol, which means it is applicable to any manufacturer whose products might bear an IP address.
Last year UPnP merged with Home API to bring a control element to UPnP's connectivity protocol. In the process, Home API dropped its initial Windows orientation in favor of IP.
The merger was applauded since it would streamline the development of a point-to-point protocol encompassing both networking and control, utilizing a standards-based IP platform.
But the age-old problem still remained: What about devices that can't support an IP stack, economically or technically speaking?
“SCP is necessary for devices that have very limited memories–maybe an 8-bit microprocessor—that might not be appropriate for a complete TCP/IP architecture,” says Kevin Eagan, Microsoft director of business development, Hardware Division. “It is also optimized for network media that are inherently low-speed, like those that are popular for home automation.”
Technical details of the budding Simple Control Protocol are still hazy, although a white paper is expected to be posted on the Website soon.
For starters, SCP is not a powerline-communications protocol per se. Even CEBus is not limited to the powerline, although so far its only implementation has been for that media.
It's just that the powerline happens to be the most logical media for home automation applications, and that the key participants in the CEBus movement (indeed, the home automation industry in general) have focused their efforts on the powerline.
That's where SCP will start, too. The first implementation will be in powerline silicon from Mitsubishi, Itran and Domosys–more on that later.
In the end, SCP will be some combination of technology from the CEBus and Home Plug & Play standards, plus bits and pieces of intellectual property from powerline-technology developers Itran, Domosys and Mitsubishi Electric–all of which have a CEBus bent. (Rumor has it, that SCP also will incorporate elements of European standards, possibly EIBus.)
For an applications programming interface, SCP will rely on Home API, which is still under development and therefore open to suggestions from the SCP participants, all of whom are involved in the UPnP/Home API initiative.
“What we want to avoid is separate APIs for PC-class devices–and there's a lot of activity with that in UPnP–and devices at the small end of the spectrum like thermostats and light switches,” says Eagan. “Someone who wants to make devices in both categories can treat the home with a single common view–they don't have to worry about two APIs.”
Meanwhile, SCP is being developed with UPnP in mind so that ultimately SCP-compatible products can participate on a UPnP-based home network. Again, since all SCP players are influential in development of the UPnP standard, it's highly likely that UPnP will be manipulated to play nicely with SCP.
Larry Stickler of Honeywell's Home Technology Center is probably grinning now. Six months ago, he urged: “Home P&P is a design that allows lower-cost devices to interoperate and be installed incrementally, without tools, on non-TCP/IP (CAL/CEBus) networks. The UPnP architecture supports bridges to non-TCP/IP devices and networks. In order to represent Home P&P devices in the UPnP world we need to make sure that the important functions of Home P&P devices are included in UPnP's device control protocols.”
Voila! The only bummer for Honeywell is that, after leading virtually every home-control initiative for the past decade, the company is finally shipping its first home control system since TotalHome. The Honeywell Home Controller comprises an unwieldy mix of CEBus for the keypad (hardwired twisted pair), C&K's RS-485 bus for security, X10 for lighting control, and Honeywell's own LESST protocol for the thermostat. The controller also includes an Ethernet port for a high-speed hookup to the Internet.
In the SCP realm, the key to tying it all together is XML (Extensible Markup Language), the emerging Internet-based language that allows software developers to define their own vocabulary for exchanging data–like whether or not a device has a dimmer, and what can be done with such a mechanism.
“When Home API was brought into UPnP, it adopted the model of UPnP, that is, an operating system-independent, media-independent model that relies on the XML schema,” says Microsoft's Greg Sullivan, product manager Windows division. “That's being extended. We're using the same XML schemas, the same device models and service descriptions, for SCP.” (See the October 1999 article in EE Times, written by Microsoft's Alec Saunders, that explains the connection between UPnP and XML.)
For over a year, the CAL Interoperability Council has worked hard to map its technologies into the emerging XML language, in anticipation of cross-industry communications. (In fact, the CIC has cooperated most notably with the Video Electronics Standards Association to link appliance clusters with A/V clusters via XML.) It would hardly be a stretch, then, to derive a Simple Control Protocol based on the device-description models of the CIC gang, and the XML/Internet expertise of Microsoft.
“As great as it is, CEBus was developed 10 years ago, before the Internet was even around,” says Herman Cardenas, founder and CEO of Smart. “Merging it into SCP will allow us to offer a lighter, more affordable technology with seamless connection to the Internet through UPnP.”
Make no mistake, though, SCP is not CEBus. It will be backwards-compatible with CEBus/Home P&P products, but even manufacturers who currently are making CEBus product will end up writing off a good portion of their CEBus-development efforts in the wake of SCP.
Although CIC leadership unanimously approved the merger with SCP, “obviously there was a little trepidation,” admits Evan Price, president of Domosys and a longtime leader in CIC. “But you have to look at where we're going vs. where we are now. If the move was not consistent with what we've learned from CEBus and applied, we would not have been able to make that shift.”
That would be the technological as well as the emotional shift. The handful of companies that have put their heart, soul, and finances into CEBus will basically see their precious protocol disappear. But the CEBus players with the most at stake are optimistic.
“What it means for SMART is: We still plan to ship GE-Smart products to the European market next year, but we'll have to go in there with new protocols. That's a lot of dollars,” says Cardenas. “But if we have an international standard, the same investment we make for the U.S., can be spread across a worldwide market.”
Cardenas explains that SCP will require modifications to Smart's physical chips and firmware. “But that's OK since we're starting with Home Plug & Play,” he says. “If we were starting with X10 or LonWorks or something very different from Home Plug & Play, then it might be very different, as if we were starting from scratch.”
In any case, the technology will help Smart cost-reduce their products by as much as 30 percent, even in the short term, says Cardenas. More importantly, it will help decrease the cost of a complete home system by eliminating the jury-rigging and difficult software programming normally required for systems integration.
But then, with a free SCP, Smart competition will increase dramatically—a prospect that doesn't bother Cardenas. “We'll know the technology better than anyone else. We'll be able to integrate it much better and faster. We will be there first.”
Because of its similarity to and backward-compatibility with CEBus, Microsoft and the rest of the SCP group suggest that developers interested in SCP should use CEBus and Home Plug & Play for now, and join the UPnP forum. Even so, the emerging protocol is likely to quell new CEBus developments. Price would tell Domosys clients: “If you're in CEBus product development or launch mode, pursue it. There's a definite path to SCP….If you're at ground-level zero, you could make a case to wait for a few months.”
For it's part, Smart is continuing to produce and sell CEBus and Home P&P Products.
Those who are rolling their eyes at “yet another home networking standard” should take a closer look at SCP. Remember, this is not one of those ubiquitous networking standards that facilitates the distribution of information from one place to another. It's a control protocol that will allow everyday devices—thermostats, lights, ovens, security systems, for example—to take action automatically based on information supplied over the network.
CEBus, LonWorks, X10, and a host of proprietary protocols, might do the same thing, but all of them were developed before networking standards, especially those based on Internet protocol, emerged.
Crestron, Echelon, Home Automation Inc., Home Automated Living, Panja, Residential Control Systems and several other automation companies currently sell products—even some affordable ones–that can integrate nicely with the Internet, but their markets will be limited without a free and open protocol backed by market-making giants.
SCP, on the other hand, represents the first effort by major consumer-products concerns to implement an open control protocol that will tie low-cost devices into the Worldwide Web.
Call Microsoft's involvement in the nascent spec a given, a prerequisite. Microsoft, after all, participates in all the specs. General Electric, though, has never gotten behind a home-technology protocol before SCP. “In the past, we've taken an interest in the various standards, but have sort of waited to see what emerges. This is the first time GE has taken a proactive role in standards development,” says Goodman. “If we want to be a leader that has products with new feature sets tied into this connected world, we can't sit here and let five or six standards bodies assert who's better and get into that cat fight.”
GE's leadership in the initiative cannot be overstated. The consumer-goods giant plans to use the new protocol in everything from light switches to major appliances, and that's for starters. Eventually, it could lead to the ultimate convergence by tying in GE-owned content providers such as NBC and NBCi Broadband.
More importantly, GE's participation signals the rest of the industry to dive in. “This tells Carrier they can build SCP into their HVAC units, tells Panasonic they can start building it into DVD and CD players, and tells GE to put it in their lights and appliances,” says Goodman.
While most of the home-control and networking community is probably (or should be) cheering SCP, the folks at Sun Microsystems might not be so happy. Sun's Java-based Jini networking protocol, which competes with UPnP, doesn't have UPnP's following when it comes to home control. UPnP already has the support of several home-control product developers in the automation, security and HVAC realms. Jini doesn't. A true control protocol integrated with UPnP's networking functionality will enhance the popularity of UPnP versus Jini.
Even so, Sun CEO Scott McNealy sits on the board of General Electric, so Sun can't be too bothered.
Another company that won't benefit from SCP is Intellon, whose Spread Spectrum Carrier (SSC) technology earns the company royalties for every CEBus chip produced. SSC will not be a part of the new control protocol. Oh well, Intellon has shifted its focus anyway to high-speed powerline networking and was recently named the key technology provider for the 10-Mbps HomePlug specification (see June 2000 HNN special issue: “HomePlug Alliance Sets Stage for Powerline-based Home Networking”).
SCP also won't help Echelon, whose LonWorks control protocol competes head-on with CEBus. Although LonWorks is somewhat of a standard in the industrial-controls arena, the company so far has failed (like CEBus) to penetrate the residential market.
Startups who market proprietary technology for linking the Internet with smart devices might suffer when SCP emerges. These include such companies as X-traWeb, a subsidiary of World Wireless Communications, Inc., and Sage Systems.
It's possible, too, that SCP could negatively impact X10, whose venerable powerline-control technology is the only one to find commercial success in the residential market. Despite enduring criticism about the unreliability of X10 technology, it's cheap, it's good enough, it has a solid distribution channel from the OEM to the retailer to the consumer, and, well, it exists.
In the long term, though (three years out), standards-based protocols like SCP will drive down the cost of powerline-based automation products, while making them more reliable and more easily integrated into the Internetworked home.
Here's how they all got together: GE had a vested interest in (and obvious respect for) CEBus and Home Plug & Play through its association with Smart, who had a relationship with Domosys, the leading silicon and service provider for CEBus and related technologies. Meanwhile, Microsoft has been hankering for a long time to work with consumer-goods icon GE in the home-networking realm. At the same time, Microsoft had a partner in Itran (see especially the June powerline issue of HNN) and has been a big-time buyer of Mitsubishi-made silicon.
Now that they've hooked up, each of these players will essentially commit as much full-time engineering talent as possible to the SCP effort until the spec is complete. “Our commitment is that we are going to put bodies into this to get it done quickly,” says Price. “We're basically sticking people in a room and locking the doors to move fast. It's not the kind of industry committee where we have a teleconference every two weeks.”
In their chambers, SCP developers plan to dissect existing technologies and, as Price puts it, “bring it down to the essence of what a control protocol should do: communicate efficiently and reliably between nodes with the promise of interoperability and security. They'll look at each piece and ask, ‘Is this needed to meet the requirements? If not, they'll get rid of it.'”
SCP will be free to anyone who wants it. That poses a little problem for the technology providers who contribute intellectual property to the protocol, most notably Domosys, Itran and the entire membership of the CEBus Industry Council. (Of course, GE and Microsoft will contribute, too, but they haven't built their entire business around technology for home control.)
Everyone is quiet about the intellectual-property issues, other than to say that they will be worked out. “I'm not saying there are zero IP issues, but I can say that all IP issues will be ironed out,” says Price. “The IP issues will be handled behind the scenes, and the end result is this will be a royalty-free protocol.”
Of course, the IP contributors have an innate edge in that they will be able to deploy product quickly due to their familiarity with the protocol. Besides that, though, Itran, Mitsubishi and Domosys seem to be getting some kind of exclusivity in producing SCP-enabled silicon, although no one will comment on this arrangement.
Itran has already benefited dearly from a recent equity investment by Microsoft. And Domosys gets a bonus of being the preferred (only?) provider of development tools and support services for would-be SCP manufacturers. Mitsubishi is a giant silicon provider for Microsoft and would probably get much of the fabrication business at least in the short term.
Eventually, the group expects to hand off SCP to an official standards-making body such as the Electronic Industries Association.
The SCP group won't say much about timelines, other than that the first draft of the spec will be available shortly. Chipsets and Domosys-inspired developers' kits are expected to be available in early 2001. Next year we should see products on the market, first probably lighting and appliance controls from Smart and GE, then maybe energy-management devices from Cutler-Hammer, Smart America, and DSC's Emerald Gateway International—all of whom are active in the CEBus realm and publicly committed to SCP.
Pricing for such SCP-compatible products remains a mystery. Microsoft's Eagan says that they will be “affordable” and that the group considers X10's products to “meet the affordability bar.” X10 compatibility adds as little as $5-$10 to the consumer cost of a light switch. Itran president Avner Matmor has said that his company's powerline-control technology can be implemented by the OEM for as little as $4-$7, including the scant cost of the silicon plus the complete bill of materials for a smart node.
In fact, the secretive nature of SCP pricing and timing most likely centers on the intellectual-property issues discussed earlier. If the protocol is free, then Itran, Domosys and Mitsubishi can't have a monopoly on silicon, and Domosys can't own the rights to developers' kits.
But a headstart of six months or so can enable these technology providers to corner the short- and mid-term market.
This reporter estimates that SCP will be finalized in a few months, but the building blocks will be released in bits and pieces during the rest of this year, with the final spec published in early 2001.
The early releases will help mobilize the industry, but the ultimate delay will give the active participants the lead they need to recoup their enormous investments.
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