Thursday, December 11, 2014

2014 Smart Home Technology, The Basics

If you've lived on the same planet that I have over the last few years, you've seen a steady onslaught of "smart" devices and are probably getting various flyers in the mail from alarm companies, cable companies, etc. about having a "smart" and "connected" home.  The future is now, and it's a future of flying cars, Dick Tracy wristwatches, and refrigerators that contact you via Twitter and Instagram when your milk spoils.

The House of the Future

Well, maybe it's none of those things, maybe it's a future of extra layers of poorly implemented computerization and networking integrated where it's wholly unnecessary.  Surely your blender needs an Ethernet port?  A trip to Lowe's or The Home Depot will bombard you with various gadgets, some of which are cool, some of which are almost cool, and some of which you should give a wide berth.

So, what next?  First, some of the stuff that is home automation (HA) is pretty cool.  Second, let's face it, you probably don't want Time Warner Cable or ADT Security or AT&T to drive decisions you make beyond Internet/cable TV access and home security monitoring.  You probably aren't even thrilled with how they do their main jobs.  You want to do things that actually work and don't tie you to someone.  You also know that technology changes fast and you don't want to buy a bunch of expensive kit and integrate it into your home only to be embarrassed by it or find it unsupportable in 2 years.  So if you're going to dive in, you probably should have a plan, and to have a plan, it might help to survey the HA landscape, both past and present.

The Past

First things first, people have been doing this for a long time.  Poorly.  Or better said, people have been using the best technology available in 1975 in an attempt to automate homes.  By this, I mean that if you start digging you'll still see a lot of X10 protocol devices and other old technology.  X10 was hugely successful and widely supported, to the extent that such things could be hugely successful and widely supported in the 1980's and 1990's.  These aren't the devices you want, they're just things that are still out there, still using a protocol developed in 1975 with a bit rate of approximately 20 bits per second.  To put this in perspective, your iPhone 6 communicates at rates up to 150 MILLION bits per second.  Now, your light switches don't need to stream Breaking Bad in 4k from Netflix like your smart TV does, but there's no reason to be constrained by 1970's technology.

The Present

The present is still kind of the past, it's just a more recent past.  If you look at present smart devices, you find a complete mishmash of things.  You'll see Z-Wave products and ZigBee products and INSTEON products and Clear Connect/Caseta products (because a guy who makes light switches should probably lead the charge on this) and BLE products (Bluetooth Low Energy, aka Bluetooth Smart) and products that make you feel good by saying they use 802.11 (WiFi).  Hey, I HAVE WiFi...

All of the above are communications protocols that have been developed in the last 5-15 years, and they are all, at some level, capable of doing many of the types of home automation/smart home tasks that most people are interested in.  Why so many?  Partially it's about getting the right standard.  The right standard has to be "appropriate," meaning fast enough but still low power, cheap to implement, etc.  In other words, 802.11 has been ubiquitous for a while, but was too high power and therefore completely wrong for this sort of thing until a new standard that may make it viable came out recently, adding it to the "we'll see" list.  Basically nobody has "won" yet.  40 years after X10, people are still waiting for this market to come of age.

Most devices devices will have their own iPhone/Android/Windows app to control them, but let's face it, you don't want an app for every device.  So, finally, we get to smart home bridges, promising to integrate all of the junk from all the other vendors running all the different protocols with all their different radios and turn that collective mess into something useful that you can access through your home network and the Internet.  You might have also heard that Apple is going to solve it all soon and make it "Just Work" with Homekit.  If you dig you might also know that Google has an agenda with Thread (they bought Nest for a reason).  Everyone wants to be the leader, which means that nobody currently is, and tomorrow is uncertain.

If you're smart, you'll be a little skeptical of all of the promises with their new NEW standards (ZigBee 3.0, Thread, Homekit, 6LoWPAN, etc.), you'll suspect that it will still be a mess in 2 years, though probably a slightly better mess, and you'll do a bit of research before starting down the path.

What Next?

All of that sounded scary, but the truth is, we're to the point where you can dive in and do some cool stuff if you're willing to do a little work, or find someone to do said work for you.  First off, you will have to pick one of the aforementioned bridges, because you're not going to be using only one protocol, and something has to tie it together for you.  Second, you'll want to start picking products carefully to go with it.

I did a little research and picked one of the current favorites for my bridge, the SmartThings Hub, and in upcoming posts I'll tell about it, what's good, what's not so good, what I've got it doing so far, and what I plan to do down the road.

To be continued...

Products referenced in this post:
For advanced reading on home automation I recommend the SmartHomeHub forums.


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