Between just Bill Gates and Michael Dell, there was a lot of brain power in Las Vegas during the International Consumer Electronics Show.
But there was perhaps no more genius anywhere than in a small room at the Renaissance Hotel, where 3Com founder and Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe joined former Apple and Pepsi CEO John Sculley in a casual chat about home automation and other newsworthy topics.
Roughly 75 people attended the one-hour “brainstorming session,” which was sponsored by Control4 and Ember. Metcalfe is chairman of Ember, a leading provider of silicon for ZigBee products, and Control4 is one of Ember's biggest customers.
Much of the conversation between Metcalfe and Sculley revolved around home automation, a key market for ZigBee's two-way lightweight RF technology. Although the question came up, neither speaker would say what type of company would ultimately “own” the automation experience in the home.
Sculley said, “You can't answer it by who's in the home now. Cable controls the set-top box. Microsoft controls the PC. … That's not necessarily the clue about who will control home automation.”
He continued, “It's probably not going to be one company,” adding that it won't even be a single type of device — a cable box, a router, a Media Center PC, for instance — that dominates as the home automation hub.
And the jury is out on Microsoft's claim to the home automation network. “It's not clear that owning a [software] layer will work with home control,” Sculley said. Success may require “being able to build end-to-end systems — software, hardware, end devices … Microsoft seems to be going that way, but others do it better.”
He added, “[Microsoft's] first attempt in the living room was: Buy a $2,000 computer that's wrapped in a skin.”
If anything, Sculley indicated, the Xbox would have a better shot at being the predominant automation hub of a home. Microsoft “failed, in my opinion, with Media Center Extender,” he said. “They may succeed with Xbox. … I think Xbox could well be a place that home automation could be managed.”
Chicken vs. Egg
The point about who will “own” the home-control hub, of course, is moot if no one cares to adopt home automation in the first place. The two panelists differed in their opinions about what would drive the adoption of home automation. Metcalfe thinks automation might sneak into the home on the back of utilities' energy-management initiatives.
He cited pilot programs by Southern California Edison and others that are testing ZigBee-enabled meters. “I think energy management could be the anchor” of an automation ecosystem, Metcalfe suggested, if only utilities would open up their intelligent meters to communicate with other devices in the home.
Sculley wasn't sold on the notion of energy management as a driver for home automation. In the first place, energy savings will not spur consumers to adopt automated solutions. If anything, he said, energy management “could well be triggered by [the trend of] going green. … I doubt if it is going to be started by people trying to save money. It's hard to quantify.”
When it comes to saving energy, homebuilders and consumers alike are more concerned today with energy-efficient construction, Sculley said. He suggested that maybe once you have the consumer's attention with energy-efficient materials, they could be persuaded to adopt energy-saving technologies, “but it's not going to be something that is just going to take off like digital music,” Sculley said.
DIY vs. the Channel
Metcalfe wondered if maybe home automation would be the fifth element of a quintuple play (with phone, TV, Internet and mobility) offered by telcos, ISPs, MSOs (cable operators) and other service providers.
Not likely, according to Sculley, who doesn't believe that home automation “naturally fits into the truck rolls that MSOs and telcos are making. … I don't know if they have the leverage. You really need a custom installer. Once they make it easy, it becomes an attractive thing to use.”
Sculley added that he thinks installers will “change the world, one house at a time.”
To that Metcalfe responded with a history lesson on Ethernet. “We had to make it so simple that the office people could install it themselves,” he said. The networking technology would never have become so ubiquitous if installation required professional installers.
Eventually, that might happen with home automation, said Sculley, but he thinks it is more likely that the technology will be forced by integrators into the homes of early adopters, and then gradually adopted more universally through word of mouth.
“People have to see something working … You go over to Bob's house and see it all working,” and then you want it yourself, Sculley said.
That may explain why Sculley has no automation in his own home. “I'm not in the industry. I don't have it [home automation], and I don't know anyone who does,” he said.
Metcalfe admitted that he, too, had no automation in his own home, nor was he contemplating it for a new home now under construction.
The kind folks at Control4 graciously offered an installed system to each of the gentlemen.