By Gerry Blackwell
November 13, 2008
The Apple iPhone may be the quintessential nomadic device, but it’s being co-opted by the home automation industry to use as a wireless remote—over Wi-Fi around the house, over cellular when out and about.
Could the power of iPhone mania actually help kick-start the perennially not-quite-ready-for-prime-time home automation market? That might be a bit much to expect, vendors and analysts say, but piggy-backing on the fastest-selling cell phone in the world certainly can’t hurt the industry.
The first iPhone remote product is already available. More are coming. At the launch of the AppStore, Apple’s online source for iPhone applications, Apple itself launched Remote.
Remote, which is free, lets you use an iPhone or iPod touch to remotely control iTunes, Apple’s music library and media server program for the Mac and Windows. When used with a wireless media player, it’s a poor man’s whole-home audio system.
Since then, home automation vendors Lagotek Corp. and iControl Networks Inc. have announced iPhone software that will let you do everything from dimming lights without getting up to viewing live surveillance camera video when you’re away from home.
Lagotek and iControl both make IP-based control solutions that work over Wi-Fi or Ethernet networks. They integrate and manage home automation devices and systems from multiple vendors, using various technologies to go the last ten feet—Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, Zigbee, RS232, powerline.
“The iPhone is a key part of our strategy,” says iControl CEO Paul Dawes.
His company mainly focuses today on monitored home security, selling through installers of GE and Honeywell systems. Why the security focus? It’s a part of the market that is already well-established—23% of home owners in the U.S. have an electronic security system that they pay a company to monitor around the clock.
But iControl’s iHub solution can also manage lighting, climate control, window coverings, and other devices. Dawes likens it to a “Trojan horse” for home automation. It gets in the door as an add-on to the home security system, but then home owners discover all the other things they can do with it.
That’s the real promise of iControl, and of the iPhone, he says. It allows companies installing security systems to offer customers new capabilities, such as viewing security alerts and surveillance camera video on a PC in the den—or on an iPhone on the other side of the world.
Other mobile platforms, such as BlackBerry or Windows Mobile, are also supported, but iPhone is the company’s main focus and highest priority.
“The interface is so good on the iPhone that it creates a great user experience,” Dawes says. “They can view live video and get notification of alerts. We believe the iPhone helps define what it’s possible to do on a mobile. It’s state of the art.”
The company will launch its iPhone/touch software in early first quarter 2009. Versions for BlackBerry and Windows Mobile will follow in the second quarter.
Lagotek vice president of business development Ilya Billig sees the iPhone playing a similar role for his company—although unlike iControl, Lagotek does also manufacture its own wall-mounted and tabletop touch panel hardware controllers.
“I can see it as one of the components that can help us sell systems,” Billig says of the proposition that iPhone might drive adoption of home automation. “Certainly it raises the awareness of what’s possible for people who have iPhones, so now they want to do more with them.”
But it’s not the notion of using the iPhone as a simple wireless remote over a home Wi-Fi network that will create interest, Billig says. The real appeal is being able to monitor a system remotely over the Internet.
One of Lagotek’s differentiators is that its architecture is highly distributed. Unlike many other home automation systems, there is never one central controller that could fail, but multiple. It could be one of Lagotek’s Home Intelligence Platform (HIP) touch panels—or software running on a connected PC or iPhone.
The company will launch its iPhone software at CES, the big consumer electronics show in Las Vegas in January. It too will add a version for Windows Mobile, but iPhone again is the main focus because of its huge market power.
Charles Golvin, a principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. doubts availability of iPhone remote controls will actually drive adoption of home automation.
“It’s possible,” Golvin says, “but I think unlikely. The iPhone isn’t really the enabler here, it’s just the face of it.”
The real challenges, the real enablers, he points out, will be figuring out how to install and then integrate Z-Wave, Zigbee, and powerline devices for lighting and heating control and other home automation applications.
“And that’s a pretty considerable challenge for the mainstream consumer,” Golvin says.
Indeed, companies like Lagotek and iControl, which are all about making control of the home easy and user-friendly, would concede Golvin’s point: it’s still too difficult for consumers to install and configure most of this stuff themselves. Which is why both sell exclusively through installers.
There are Wi-Fi-based home automation vendors selling to do-it-yourselfers. Logitech with Wi-Life and Hawking Technologies with its HomeRemote line, for example, offer remote monitoring and control systems. Their solutions even use cell phones, though not iPhone yet.
None, however, offers comprehensive solutions like the iControl and Lagotek products that can manage and control every aspect of a home.
“As soon as you can bring all the components home in a bag [from a retail store], we’ll be much closer to do-it-yourself home automation,” Billig says. “But today, we’re not there yet.”
Dawes says his company’s technology is easy enough to use that consumers could install products on their own for simple applications, such as setting up Wi-Fi surveillance cameras. But it makes more sense for iControl to sell through installers because the broader home automation market—do-it-yourself or otherwise—simply isn’t there yet.
“It’s a complicated market with an unclear value proposition,” he says.
The value proposition for monitored home security, on the other hand, is very well-understood and appreciated by consumers. And the distribution channel-local installers—is well established.
Most believe the do-it-yourself home automation market will eventually materialize. Golvin, who has been periodically surveying consumers since 2003 about how they use home networks, says using networks for home automation will be the third phase in that market’s evolution.
It has now moved in significant numbers into the second phase, networking entertainment devices, such as wireless media players—about a third of home network owners surveyed by Forrester in 2007 said they are doing this now.
But few have progressed to the final phase. “Very, very few,” Golvin says. “Probably low single digits.”
Golvin, meanwhile, has hands-on experience with phase two of home networking, and with Apple’s iPhone Remote.
He already had a Wi-Fi network set up with an Apple AirPort Express media player connected to an entertainment system. Adding Remote means he can now browse iTunes libraries on computers in other rooms from his iPhone, select tracks to play, stop, pause, rewind, or fast-forward them, and even view cover art.
“It wasn’t at all difficult to set up,” Golvin says.
Phase three? Maybe next year.
- For more by Gerry Blackwell, read “Review: ASUS AIR Internet Radio,” “Review: Two Routers in One,” and “Review: Apple AirPort Extreme.”
- For more on home automation and Wi-Fi, read “Home Automation the Wireless Way,” “UPnP Could Meld Home Controls with Networks,” and “2006: The Year of Home Controls.”
- For more on iPhone, read “Tech Trends and Products to Watch in 2008,” “First iPhone Malware Found,” “Review: iPhone 2.0 Software Upgrade.”
- For more on iPod touch, read “Review: iPod touch 2nd Generation,” “Apple Introduces New iPod touch,” “Review: Apple MobileMe.”
Gerry Blackwell is a veteran technology journalist and a frequent contributor to Wi-Fi Planet. He is based in London, Ontario.