The home-technology industry saw some big news in 2015, like the acquisitions of QMotion by Legrand and SunBrite by SnapAV, theend of the iconic LiteTouch lighting-control business, and the rise of DC power distribution.
But the following stories, I believe, are the most important of the year in terms of their significance to the smart-home industry and the home-technology channel.
VIA International Folds
Another big dealer roll-up failed this year. VIA International wasformed in 2013 with the merger of six high-end, high-profile integration companies. It promised to defy the industry’s long history of failed “aggregations.” In the end, the group ran out of money as it invested heavily in scaling the operation – merging back-end systems, building a 15,000-square-foot centralized rack-assembly facility, hiring pricey consultants and turning former business owners into corporate employees.
The demise of VIA was rather scandalous, but many of the original owners are back in business and laid-off workers are re-employed. The failure of the organization was significant because it shows once again that the high-end home systems business cannot easily scale. That’s not a good thing.
Alarm.com Goes Public
Alarm.com (Nasdaq: ALRM), the leading SHaaS (smart home as a service) provider for independent security and home automation dealers, went public on June 26, 2015, becoming only the second pure-play smart-home IPO after Control4 (Nasdaq: CTRL). We now have twice as many public companies in our field to expose to the investment community, which is an important thing for such a misunderstood industry. Both companies are doing the hard work of proselytizing the home systems integration channel like no individual integrator (or trade association) can do.
Neither CTRL nor ALRM are blowing away Wall Street at this time, but good or bad the exposure is important to the home-technology channel.
4K Ecosystem Comes Together
The wide release of 4K Ultra HD displays helped boost the TV business over the past couple of years, as consumers upgraded to pricier, higher-resolution screens. But 4K content lagged and we didn’t have the right HDMI 2.0- and HDCP 2.2-ready gear to even distribute such content. Plus, all those new pixels in 4K haven’t necessarily wowed consumers.
In 2015, things started coming together for 4K. Content is being released on disc, online and over-the-air; playerslike Kaleidescape can actually serve up and play the content; HDCP 2.2-compliant receivers and switches can distribute the content; wide color gamut (WCG) and high dynamic range (HDR) bring glorious color and brightness to displays; and HDMI cables are being certified through multiple bodies for 4K worthiness.
Home Tech Channel Gains Recognition
Every year, more big names in the consumer electronics business figure out they need a service channel like ours – one that can deliver product feedback, real sales capabilities, long-term customer service and happier customers that spread the word.
This year, we saw Vizio entering the channel for the first time via the Powerhouse Alliance network of distributors. Both Dish Network and Xfinity upped their investment in the channel, recognizing that their best customers need premium service. Nest launched a “Pro” group to win integrators. Sonos is rumored (and almost certain) to be collaborating with home-control vendors on integration. And in a somewhat related move, Sony dumped its own online and brick-and-mortar stores to sell exclusively through dealers.
Savant Launches DIY Remote
Savant is one of the first big custom-centric home automation vendors to launch a DIY product at retail – the newSavant Remote, which will sell through BestBuy.com for $499. Competitors Control4, Crestron, Elan, RTI and Vantage – which have never offered home-control systems direct to consumer – will be watching. So will many Savant dealers who fear the “descent” of the brand into DIY land.
Savant promises the move will bring new customers to existing dealers, and provide new business models for integrators currently selling mostly one-off custom systems. In fact, a whole new industry might spring up around the Savant Remote, thanks to the launch of HAUS, a franchise-like organization aimed at the market for less-custom systems.
Amazon Ships Echo
If ever there was a Trojan horse for home automation, the Amazon Echo could be it. The wildly popular cylinder that plays music and responds to voice commands has people so accustomed to speaking into the air – and when I say people I mean me – that they catch themselves asking “Alexa” to turn on the TV or dim the lights.
Echo released an SDK this year, along with IFTTT integration, so consumers can set some of their own voice commands by asking Alexa to “trigger” an event. In the custom installation realm, we saw Echo demos by Clare Controls and Simple Control (Roomie Remote) at CEDIA Expo. We’ve seen other demos behind closed doors and expect many more at CES 2016. The implementation for Echo “partners” (except Insteon and Philips Hue) is clunky (“Tell Alexa to tell Clare to ….”) but it’ll get there.
Play-Fi Finds Traction in Channel
Play-Fi, the DTS whole-house wireless protocol that kind of competes with Apple AirPlay, gained some traction this year in the custom industry, which is a very good thing. We have proprietary wireless solutions from Sonos, Denon (Heos) and Yamaha (MusicCast), but Play-Fi is open to all. At CEDIA, we saw Play-Fi-enabled speakers, soundbars, amps, streamers and services from Paradigm, MartinLogan, Definitive Technology, Polk, Wren, Arcam, McIntosh, Tidal, Spotify Connect and more.
The new Play-Fi Server ($999) from Fusion Research enables Play-Fi audio components to integrate with third-party home control systems including Crestron, Control4, RTI and URC. Hopefully more bridge-type devices will be coming in the new year.