By Adam Stone
Move over, Zigbee and Z-Wave. A new contender has thrown its hat in the ring.
With the market for home automation technologies expected to rise steadily in the coming years, Smarthome’s INSTEON Alliance already has lined up more than 300 partner companies who plan to develop wireless home control networking products using the INSTEON technology protocol.
INSTEON distinguishes itself in the field by relying on a dual-channel approach, connecting automated products through radio frequency and also through a power line connection.
“When we look at home control technology and at applications moving forward, we see a lot of applications in the home that will naturally be battery operated,” explains Ken Fairbanks, Vice President of Business Development for INSTEON. “You don’t want to run 110 volts to your window blinds or your door locks.”
Thus the dual-channel network allows for the possibility of connecting any device that may enter the network, be it large or small.
INSTEON is a product of Smarthome, a well-established player in the world of electronic home improvement and automation. Given its domestic lineage, it will come as little surprise that INSTEON is shying away from the industrial automation market presently being pursued by Dust Networks and others. In fact, this is a purely consumer play, with the home market as its target.
The good news for INSTEON is that the market for home automation appears to be growing at a steady clip. In-Stat/MDR, for example, has predicted that home automation revenues will hit $5.3 billion by 2007.
The market encompasses a wide range of possible devices. INSTEON, for example, already claims among its membership technology developers in the realms of lighting systems, security and home entertainment, as well as in more esoteric areas such as window treatments and faucets.
In the past, the market for such doodads has been limited to the upper brackets, with most automation products going into high-end homes, which make up only about 1 percent of new construction. Think, for instance, of Bill Gates’ $30 million bungalow, where computer chips adjust lighting, temperature and other features to a visitor’s preference.
Increasingly, though, such products are reaching the middle tiers, as the technology becomes both less expensive and more ubiquitous.
It is that drive for ubiquity that lies behind the INSTEON Alliance. Like Zigbee and Z-Wave, the alliance is seeking to build a critical mass of applications based on its technology.
To that end, INSTEON is departing from others in another important respect, by lowering the cost of entry significantly. The development kit costs $99, a price designed to attract the widest array of tinkerers. Zigbee development kits can run $1,500 or more.
“This whole marketplace is still in the innovation stage of development,” Fairbanks says. “It’s like when the first PCs were coming out, and we want to enable that type of innovation, to encourage all developers.”
Fairbanks says a low cost of entry could encourage creative thinkers to dive in. He envisions for INSTEON a play along the Linux model, with corporate IT developers playing around with the protocol in their spare time, and eventually bringing it into the workplace in a formal way.
In addition to its dual-channel structure and ease of entry, INSTEON also brings one more thing to the table that its promoters say will help it gain a foothold: mesh architecture.
Competing router technology can be difficult to implement, with configuration changes needed as new devices are added, Fairbanks says. INSTEON uses peer-to-peer mesh technology. Because all devices are peers, any device can transmit, receive and repeat other messages, without requiring a master controller or complex routing software.
The alliance’s biggest challenge? Consumer awareness, Fairbanks says. People still do not know this stuff is available.
To leap that hurdle, the alliance has brought on PR firm O’Leary and Partners, where executives say they are confident they can boost consumer enthusiasm.
“Some of the good news here is that there is a really high ‘cool’ factor here right now,” says VP of PR Jennifer McLean. “There’s a whole thing about impressing friends and family. It looks like you spent $50,000 for some of these things, and really you spent maybe $1,000, or not even that.”