The Internet of Things (IoT) concept has gained a lot of traction over the last couple of years. One of the main applications of IoT lies in the home automation space. Consumers have many options in this space, but none of them have the right combination of comprehensiveness, economy, extensibility and ease of use. We provided an introduction to IoT / home automation back in 2012, and the space has rapidly evolved since then.

As we ramp up our IoT / home automation coverage, we wanted to bring out a set of aspects that consumers should analyse in detail when choosing a home automation system. They will also help us in reviewing home automation systems / devices from a consumer's perspective. This piece will begin with a short overview of how home automation systems have evolved since our last coverage.

Introduction

There are a wide variety of home automation devices, but the common / popular ones fulfill one or more of the following:

  1. Control state of an electrical outlet or switch
  2. Monitor energy consumption of an electrical outlet or switch
  3. Control light bulb intensity and/or color
  4. Monitor environmental data (parameters such as temperature, humidity etc. or detection of motion, open doors or windows, live video feed etc.) via connected sensors

It is also expected that a home automation solution will allow configuration and automatic triggering of events based on data collected from the component devices.

Why is Home Automation Hot?

It is an interesting exercise to look into why home automation and IoT tend to draw a lot of players (established companies, VC-funded startups and crowd-funding seekers) into the market. The potential for revenue is huge (multiple devices per household) and development of single-function components is not resource intensive (many home automation devices are simple to design and suitable even for undergraduate engineering projects). This is the reason why established companies go for an ecosystem of products, while others try to start with one or two devices.

Home Automation and the Cloud

The cloud has come as a messiah for all the IoT / home automation device vendors seeking venture funding. As mentioned earlier, home automation devices need to be controlled and/or monitored and their state needs to be actionable. This requires intelligence that has traditionally been resident in the in-house command center. Some vendors opt to offer service plans by moving this intelligence to the cloud and making all user interactions go via their servers. It also provides them with data mining opportunities. In certain cases, vendors can claim delivering of a better experience for customers using machine learning on the cloud side.

Open APIs

The presence of a cloud-based service-oriented model also makes companies hesitant to be part of an open ecosystem. It is desirable to have open APIs, or better still, a full description of the internal workings of the system and how to access it. For crowd-funded products and those from small startups, this is important for a couple of reasons: becoming part of the ecosystem of products controlled by devices like the Logitech Harmony Hub is easier and power users (typically having more weight for their word of mouth) can develop their own applications to interact with the device or integrate it with their existing home automation system.

The above points help us in understanding the current state of the home automation market. Armed with this knowledge, consumers should  be able to identify hidden costs in any home automation system under consideration. Our next section will draw up a checklist for consumers in this area.

Drawing up a Checklist

In evaluating home automation devices, there are a number of questions that the consumer needs to ask before committing to a particular product family.

1. Does the unit require an always-on Internet connection? What are its capabilities in an 'Intranet of Things' scenario?

Devices which need the Internet all the time typically put all intelligence in the cloud and force the cloud component on the end user. Note that this is different from systems that use the cloud to make things easier for novice users. In the case of a forced cloud component, it would be desirable for consumers to get more clarification from the vendor. A purchase decision should be made only if one is satisfied with the answers provided.

  • What happens when the Internet connection in the consumer premises goes down?
  • What happens if the IoT product vendor's servers experience downtime at a critical juncture?
  • If the IoT product vendor were to go out of business, would the IoT device be rendered useless?
  • Is the consumer expected to 'purchase' the IoT device with the mindset that he is just leasing the product from the company with no guarantee of availability / operation in the future?
  • Is there a guarantee for security / hacker-proofing on the cloud side to ensure that the unit doesn't act like a Trojan horse for nefarious access into one's internal network?

Many companies try to justify a cloud-only model by trumping up the benefits of analytics in the cloud. Typically, they are useful for IP cameras (but, even in that case, there is nothing on the technical side that justifies preventing users from getting a less-featured local network-only experience).

Consumers need to fight back against pure-cloud plays in the home automation space

For most other home automation devices like thermostats, it is mostly a matter of data mining / customer lock-in, rather than user experience.

2. Is it possible for authorized third-party applications or devices to control the unit without compromising security?

This is another way of checking if the device has open APIs available for control. Even if open APIs are available, one has to check if the communication always passes through the device vendor's servers. In that case, all the concerns voiced earlier need to be considered here too.

In terms of security, consumers also have to look into how access is authorized (for both native and third-party API control). IoT security is a hot topic right now, and even the average consumer needs to be aware of the protection mechanisms on a device that has unfettered access to one's internal network.

Consumers must encourage devices with secure, but open APIs

On the other hand, control of devices can even be set up by integrating with cloud services such as IFTTT (If-This-Then-That). IFTTT is quite popular and encouraged / promoted even by the IoT device manufacturers. In those types of situations, consumers must think about whether such cloud services can be trusted with access to one's social media accounts. It can't be stressed enough - when dealing with home automation devices, consumers must always keep security on top of their mind.

3. Does the installation require new wires or 'hubs' in addition to the main unit? How is the command center implemented?

The rise in popularity of home automation can be attributed to the use of Wi-Fi as the communication medium of choice. Almost all Internet-connected homes have a Wi-Fi network, and hooking up a home automation device to it ensures that no other bridge devices are needed for communication. Unfortunately, 802.11ah, the version of Wi-Fi optimized for IoT (low-power and long range) doesn't seem to be taking off as fast as expected. In the meanwhile, Z-Wave and ZigBee continue to strengthen their install base. Some devices have also opted for Bluetooth. Bluetooth works well for wearables where the IoT device talks to a smartphone. However, it requires some adaptation for usage in a home automation setting (CSR's proprietary BLE extensions with mesh networking support, CSRmesh, is an example). Other than Wi-Fi, everything else requires some sort of hub device to interface with the IP network.

Lowe's Iris uses a smartphone app as the command center. A ZigBee / Z-Wave to IP hub can be seen in the top left

Legacy home automation systems often had a centralized command center / station where the components could be controlled and rules could be programmed. With the advent of mobile devices, command and control is achieved via mobile apps. The rules can be either stored in the cloud (and integrated with cloud-base rules services such as IFTTT (If-This-Then-That)) or locally in the device or a control hub.

4. What are the power requirements of the device? If powered via batteries, what type is used, and how often do they need to be changed?

Many home automation devices that fulfill duties such as door / windows closure sensing tend to be battery-operated. In such cases, it is important for consumers to identify the type of battery being used and their expected lifetime. Usage of Wi-Fi as a communication medium in such devices is not usually a good choice - low power protocols such as Z-Wave and ZigBee are better suited. AC-powered home automation devices don't need to worry about this aspect. That said, if Wi-Fi is being used, it would be an added bonus if the device were to sport a low-power Wi-Fi SoC. Data rates are not that big of a concern when it comes to IoT devices. Reduction in power requirements often trumps the bandwidth aspect.

Door/window contact sensors might use CR2 batteries or CR2032 coin cells, depending on the vendor

In case the device under consideration connects to a wired network (common in devices such as IP surveillance cameras), it would be an added advantage if PoE (power over Ethernet) were to be used in order to reduce cabling requirements.

5. Is the device a standalone product or a member of an ecosystem of products? What are the pricing aspects?

Consumers need to identify whether the device under consideration is a standalone product or one of many components in a product family. In the former case, the importance of open APIs and ability for third-party applications to control the unit is increased. Otherwise, the consumer is likely to end up with multiple mobile apps for controlling different devices. In the latter case, it is good to check if all the devices in the product family can be controlled via a single interface (usually a mobile app or a central home automation server).

Home automation solutions may have products for multiple use-cases (eg. Lowe's Iris & SmartThings) or have a narrow focus (eg. smart lighting with Philips Hue & LIFX)

The final aspect that consumers need to consider is pricing. Home automation has remained a niche market so far because not many consumers can afford the price of professionally installed systems. There is nothing wrong in going for such a high-priced system - if you can afford it. That said, home automation technology is becoming more and more user-friendly (in terms of ease of installation and operation). Devices are becoming more and more affordable. Some devices such as those that do energy monitoring / power outlet scheduling and temperature control often end up paying for themselves over the long run in saved electricity and heating costs. In any case, it is important for consumers to shop around for their home automation needs. There are many offerings providing the same functionality. In addition to being satisfied with the answers to the four questions above, being comfortable with the short and long-term costs is also an important aspect. Some devices have a monthly subscription fee for cloud-based access, and that needs to be considered in the overall cost structure.

Concluding Remarks

This piece has brought out a set of aspects that go beyond what the usual company press releases / tech press coverage shed light on. These typically also lead to the negative aspects (from a consumer perspective) of any home automation system. In order to bring out the true picture of any device / system targeting home automation in the IoT / IoE space, we will be carrying a summary table covering the following points in each of our home automation reviews:

  • Communication Technology (Wi-Fi / Bluetooth / Z-Wave / ZigBee etc.)
  • Power Source
  • Hub / Bridge Requirement
  • Control Center (Local device / cloud / local server etc.)
  • User Control Interface (Mobile apps / web server / dedicated consumer premises equipment etc.)
  • Notes on Open APIs
  • Notes on Cloud Reliance (includes subscription aspects)
  • Notes on Security
  • Pricing

The aspects brought out in the preceding section were presented in the form of questions that the consumers need to ask. Note that most of them are open-ended ones, and a non-consumer friendly answer to any of them doesn't automatically make the product a disappointing one. For example, Dropcam - one of the more successful exits in the home automation / IoT space - has always actively prevented local access to the video feed. This didn't prevent them from selling a large number of cameras. The intention of this piece is to educate consumers - they should vote with their wallets to encourage open devices and systems. Hopefully, the next Dropcam's product family members will be as much friendly to power users as they will be easy to use.

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  • toyotabedzrock - Friday, April 17, 2015 - link

    The battery issue and the insecurity of Bluetooth LE is my main concern. Could the sensors for windows and doors use a passive energy collection device maybe augmented with a small solar cell?
    Also smart bulbs are stupid, we need smart bulb sockets to convert lamps, and they should be able to test for dead bulbs and control led intensity. Maybe even make the lamp able to be controlled by physical touch?
    Reply
  • nedjinski - Friday, April 17, 2015 - link

    Already using Echo by voice command to control WeMo switches and Philips Hue bulbs. Reply
  • ganeshts - Friday, April 17, 2015 - link

    I am yet to look into details of how Echo works - but, can you let me know whether it works if your Internet connection is down?

    Amazon Echo will definitely be a major force in the market - the issue I foresee with these types of automation hubs is that you are reliant on them to bring in support for any new home automation devices that come up. Compare that with running your own home automation server and using devices that have open APIs so that you can configure it on your own / get the help of a user-driven community.

    Devices like Amazon Echo, Logitech Home Automation Hub etc. are definitely great for the average consumer - just like Dropcam is awesome for the average consumer. The problem is that these tend to create a situation where it will become acceptable for everything to be a pure cloud play.
    Reply
  • nedjinski - Monday, April 20, 2015 - link

    sorry for only being amongst the ranks of "the average consumer" - but I think that's who this article is talking about.
    as to internet interruptions - true - but how often is your internet down? assuming you don't live in podunk somewhere. the future only leads to more stability and greater coverage. so these devices may be ahead of the curve at the moment, but not for long.
    if we're talking about security systems - it will be a long time before I feel comfortable about relying on electronic devices of any kind to secure my personal premises - I'll stick with hard locks and keys and side step the hackers who want access to my possessions. but I'm okay with the idea of controlling non secure systems like lighting, A/V, heating, etc. inside my four walls.
    as to cloud play - that is, like it or not, where everything is going - just as in the olden days when cell phones and towers were few and far between and now blanket the landscape, so cloud interaction will be completely pervasive and we won't think twice about working in/through the cloud to control devices, store data, etc.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, April 20, 2015 - link

    The Internet being up is only one aspect. Security of your network (not physical home alone) is another important point - I am pretty sure people have important data in the computers inside their network. Do people want to give their home automation device vendor a way to get into the network? They may not have nefarious intentions, but it only takes a compromise of their cloud server to expose all their customers' networks.

    In addition, did you see what happened to Wink hub owners over the weekend? Wink got caught with their pants down and rendered their hubs inoperative for quite some time - It is as if they had a kill switch for the hardware product already in the hands of the consumers.

    I don't wish to sound like a scaremonger here, but , as I mentioned, the purpose of this piece is to encourage consumers to choose the 'non-cloud' home automation device / hub over the 'cloud-based' one - just so that the consumers can remain in control.
    Reply
  • BuddyRich - Tuesday, April 21, 2015 - link

    You make a good point ganesh... These are relatively simple devices that would have a longish shelf life, and assuming they do what you want don't really need to be upgraded.

    However if they only work so long as the cloud service is up, then they might have an artificially short shelf life if that service goes down or is changed. Look at the recent Youtube API change. While not a direct comparison, they've just rendered apps in old* tvs and bluray players (*as in apps on players older than 2013 - so not that old) inoperable. At least those players still play blurays but...

    Thats a great way to get you to buy new hardware and subscribe to a service every couple of years, when what you initially had was fine and from a hardware point of view was still fine.
    Reply
  • hammer256 - Saturday, April 18, 2015 - link

    Great article. The emphasize on security, and control by the consumers is a voice that's not heard very frequently anymore. Reply
  • sorten - Sunday, April 19, 2015 - link

    Home automation and IoT are hot topics for vendors, but I wonder if this market segment will flop in a similar fashion to 3D televisions. Outside of a few geek friends, I have yet to hear anyone talk about HA or IoT, though HA has been around for more than a decade. Reply
  • Gadgety - Sunday, April 19, 2015 - link

    Great start, Ganesh T S. Looking forward to future pieces. I'd like to run a future home automation system from the wrist with Android Wear as the UCI. I've seen a few demos on Youtube, using the Tasker app in conjunction with other apps, such as Autovoice, and AutoHue for the Philips Hue lighting. This enables controlling the system with your voice. Would be thrilling if future articles include perspectives on this. Reply
  • sadsteve - Sunday, April 19, 2015 - link

    Eh, have no desire to automate my home. Just more cost and wasted power for all these active devices. And there's no way I'd ever buy one of these devices if it's required to be connect to the internet/cloud.

    I played with the BSR stuff many years ago and ended up removing it since I never really used it.
    Reply

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