So-called standards

An analyst reader contacted me asking for some information regarding home automation standards, and since I felt like having a bit of a rant, I thought I'd write my answer as a blog post.

This has again turned into a mammoth post, so reader discretion is advised, feel free to skip over any parts which bore you... heck, I'm don't even proof-read these posts because they're TLDR :o)

First, an analogy. This evening we watched a documentary made by the BBC called 'The Box That Changed Britain', and a very notable quote from it:

"It's kind of amazing to me to look at all these boxes here, and these were all designed by Keith Tantlinger, back in 1956, and they had patents for all these, and he convinced Malcolm McLean to give the patents to the industry. So that meant everybody could come in with the same twist-lock safe-guard, and it was an amazing system."

"By giving up his patents, McLean made it easier for rivals to copy his design, rather than come up with their own ones. This encouraged standardisation, meaning that today any container can be handled at any of the world's major ports, without any problems of compatibility"

Today, the reason why things are made worldwide, and why we can afford to have those things in our lives is because Malcolm McLean and Keith Tantlinger released their patents for a greater cause. The same needs to happen for Home Automation. Until we have a standard that isn't patent encumbered, and is cheap to replicate and produce, we will not have a 'standard'.

In my previous post I do mention them as 'standards', but the whole nature of a standard is that people adopt it as the specification to use when doing X, and none of the current 'standards' (hence the 's' in standards) have managed it.

We've seen the same thing happen in video and audio media in the past, and although the best standard on paper might not win every time (and hardly ever does), we desperately need this to happen in the home automation industry. The other industries which have fought over this have been in fierce markets, and the winner has been announced in a matter of a couple of years (unless they can live 'happily' in parallel, as with many audio formats), but the home automation industry doesn't have this luxury of a fast-paced cut-throat market, they're a niche, and until they recognise that they need to work together to get into the mainstream, I'm afraid the only home automation people are likely to buy are the cheap 'Standby Saver' type of products.

Where are the home automation standards going?

Every year at CES there seems to be a whole new set of hype around more home automation manufacturers, with even more pretty touchscreen control systems but they never seem to actually get anything to the market.

For now, I personally think it's a fight all of the manufacturers are losing, and if you read the 'homebrew' section later on there might be better alternatives coming from the open source community.

So which standard would I bet on?

The 'official' approach

Well, if you read my previous post you might think I'm routing for Z-Wave, but that wouldn't be the case. I chose Z-Wave because of it's ability to be a retrofit solution, since it's completely wireless, but from comments I understand that C-Bus and Rako both are able to be retrofit, and of course a hybrid hardwire/wireless solution would be ideal, to be able to 'go anywhere'.

Apart from the pricing, I would lean towards C-Bus, from the 'standards' I've looked into so far. They have nice-looking devices, and seem to have a good technical solution

Zigbee, used in Alert-Me's products, many energy monitors, and a lot of industrial use-cases, I would like to see more of it, but for the moment it's too proprietary for me to think about.

What I'm ultimately looking for is to be able to buy a light switch for <£10 and for the average homeowner to figure out how to fit and wire the faceplates and sockets without resorting to an electrician's help. None of the standards seem to be at that stage yet, especially on the pricing.

The homebrew approach

Since I'm a geek, and an occasional hacker, I like the idea of using standard networking for the communication channel.

xPL

The xPL Project is an interesting, but somewhat neglected (marketing-wise at least) project, which is creating a standard way to communicate about home automation controls, and building software for servers and nodes in order to connect devices. I haven't been able to look into it too much because I couldn't get it build easily, and the documentation was quite frankly rubbish, but that was a couple of years ago, so that might have changed, although looking at the latest post being from 2009 I doubt too much has changed, but the code repository is still very active.

The slight problem I see with this approach is that it hopes to connect *all* dispersed standards, so they don't have enough focus on getting people up and running with one particular set of hardware, which ultimately means a lot of customisation hassle, but I could be wrong.

Arduino

On the hardware side, Arduino, an Open Source Hardware platform is here to the rescue. Being cheap and easy to build (My girlfriend and I have even soldered one together ourselves, of the Nanode variety), and coming in an amazing array of sizes and feature-sets for different purposes, from clothing-friendly versions, to ones with built-in networking, to others with radio transmitters.

I urge anyone with the slightest interest in making their own embedded electronics, to buy an Arduino and start sketching, you'll be amazed at what you could do.

This is also the platform Google chose as the avenue for the Android Open Accessory Development Kit (ADK), so there's a rather large community building up, if there wasn't already.

MQTT

I know very little about MQTT, but basically it's a very lightweight protocol for machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, which includes queueing and retransmissions as standard. It's being used in Arduino projects, most notably the Nanode community, using it for energy monitoring, and over low-bandwidth radio frequencies for remote monitoring of weather, gardens, etc.

Data Stream Communities

Pachube, among others, are getting more popular, and the power of these services to do real-time analysis, complex event processing (CEP) and triggering remote events is really going to push the boundary of what home automation, energy, and environmental monitoring can enable.

Increasingly, it seams, these services are going to be provided by communications companies, possibly in partnership with energy providers, but ultimately the communication is going to be the deciding factor for a lot of these platforms... whether we can get telemetry data from vehicles cheaply and pervasively is in their power.

Conclusion

In short, I think the 'old boys' are risking being bypassed completely by entrepreneurial 'amateurs' if they don't start to reduce prices, geographic coverage, and increase the amount of devices/controls that are available in all markets outside the US.

Arduino and other low-cost Open Source Hardware solutions are going to start playing a strong role in turning the tides on the home automation scene with a community spirited approach.

Patents are the worst thing to happen to innovation, and luckily most of the latest projects to start know that being open will get them further than staying isolated and closed, but the old-fashioned corporations don't 'get it', as usual.

For installation and home design companies the current standards going to serve fine, with people/business that are able to afford the 'job lot' being catered for, but for the average home owner who just wants to turn a few lights on and off, spending a fortune on a couple of light switches is turning them to cheaper, crappier solutions.

Comments

Friday 2 September 2011 17:18 | user icon Andy Piper
Saturday 3 September 2011 13:26 | user icon Duncan Sample
Saturday 3 September 2011 20:58 | user icon Roger
Saturday 3 September 2011 22:29 | user icon Andy Piper

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About the author

Portrait of the author

On weekdays I'm a Technical Lead at Comparethemarket.com, having previously been a Solution Architect at Nokia & Nokia Siemens Networks, creating creative software solutions for mobile operators around the world.

In my spare time I'm an avid new technology fan, and constantly strive to find innovative uses for the new gadgets I manage to get my hands on. Most recently I've been investigating Mobile Codes, RFID and Home automation (mainly Z-Wave). With a keen eye for usability I'm attempting to create some cost-effective, DIY technology solutions which would rival even high-end retail products. The software I develop is usually released as Open Source.

I have a Finnish geek partner, so have begun the difficult task of learning Finnish.


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