The Struggle for Home System Dominance: WHICH PLATFORM WILL HOME CONTROL SYSTEMS STAND ON?
To simply define the frenetic, evolutionary growth of the home systems market in a linear way â€” as following a straight, simple and predictable line along a single technological platform â€” would be doing a disservice to this emerging, complex industry.
After all, numerous divergent subsystems and technologies are the very definition of todayâ€™s home control business, and itâ€™s no wonder that the specific technologies are evolving on a number of different platforms and in a variety of ways.
To start, more and more low voltage subsystem specialists are envisioning the home control business of today as the real future growth of their own niche business. It can be defined by two distinct market segments: A highly-robust, hard-connected, high-end home control market, and a more mainstream, infrastructure-based systems market.
If you envision the market for home systems as a triangle, at the very top is this connect-everything, bandwidth-eating, cutting-edge home systems market. Platform-wise, the backbone of these systems is necessarily structured wiring â€” the beefy blend of high-throughput data cabling, wiring for audio/video components and standard telephone wiring.
For complex home control systems that potentially could include everything from security, distributed audio and video, lighting control, home theater, smart heating and cooling, and anything else a sophisticated dealer/integrator could imagine, a structured wiring system is essential. This is why more and more builders are offering it in their new construction.
â€œ[Builders] today will include so many drops of Ethernet or Cat 5 cabling per room to handle whatever,â€ says Robert Noble, vice president of product management for AMX, Richardson, Texas, a company whose bread-and-butter business is making the touch panels and control systems used in many of the higher end systems found today. â€œIt may be for an entertainment system or an A/V system, or it may be just a communications backbone for everybodyâ€™s Internet.â€
At one point in the evolution of home systems only a few years ago, industry watchers predicted structured wiring systems would migrate down to mainstream levels. Although relatively expensive structured wiring systems are being built standard into more and more mid-level new homes, the numbers are showing a certain plateau.
The most recent report from the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), Arlington, Va., and the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), Washington, D.C., that looked at builder technology offerings actually showed fewer builders including structured wiring in 2005 than in 2004. Thatâ€™s surprising, but it most likely can be explained by the emergence of newer platforms, such as wireless ones.
What the study unequivocally shows is that builders are offering home technologies as packages in their new homes in record numbers. Clearly, technology adoption by the mainstream is driving growth in home systems.
At On-Q/Legrand, Middletown, Pa., which sells structured wiring systems, technology â€” specifically entertainment technology â€” is pushing their platform to new heights.
â€œEntertainment is pushing a lot of things to the next level,â€ observes Avi Rosenthal, national program manager for On-Q/Legrand. â€œAnd when you talk about platforms to deliver it, structured wiring is where you want to be. Itâ€™s the easiest way to use all the devices that are out there.â€
HYBRID APPROACHESWithin the structured wiring environment, the control systems that work along these networks are reflecting their own distinctive evolution. What you end up seeing with some systems is a hybrid approach in which specific data networking functionality follows the Cat 5 cabling, but a number of wireless or even power-line-type technologies are piggybacked onto the system.
This evolution can be seen in the new porting capabilities coming online with many of the control systems, such as the wireless capability at AMX.
â€œI think if you go back five years in the industry, everybody had their proprietary version of wireless, and it was whatever chip they found, from whatever vendor, that could make it do whatever they wanted,â€ Noble declares.
Four years ago, AMX started an initiative to move to standards-based communication, adopting Ethernet as its standard wire-line piece. The concurrent 802.11 technology, or Wi-Fi, was adopted as the wireless piece â€” â€œmainly to be able to coexist in a world where structured wiring exists,â€ Noble explains. Over the past year, AMX has really pushed to get the super-quick 802.11g wireless capability on all its panels.
In addition to all the traditional serial porting, On-Q systems also are interoperable with any IP-based technology. That is where many see the entire home control market going, if not for many years out.
With more and more people eyeing the mainstream home control market â€” specifically the bulky middle of the aforementioned triangle â€” it seems the structured wiring platform is becoming less and less of a necessary reality. For low-voltage dealer/integrators contemplating branching out into new home systems, that is a positive trend.
Home Automation Inc. (HAI), New Or-leans, is a home systems company that has the traditional low voltage installer in mind.
â€œFrom the security industry standpoint, do we prefer if the house has structured wiring in it? Absolutely. But we donâ€™t require it,â€ says Jay McLellan, president of HAI. â€œBut wires are always better than wireless â€” youâ€™re going to get a cleaner connection, and itâ€™s always faster. So if you have the opportunity, pull the wire.â€
That does not mean wireless does not have its place. It does. Wireless use with lighting control is burgeoning because complex systems and new capabilities can be added without having to run new wiring.
HAIâ€™s lighting control is not wireless in the traditional sense because it uses point-to-point UPB (universal power line bus) technology running over regular power lines. Many lighting control and even some networking technologies are working on the power line platform today.
In the true wireless sphere, until now proprietary technologies have ruled the roost, but standards and technologies are being developed for an interoperable wireless platform as well.
Theirs is not the only approach for reaching the mainstream of the home systems market triangle. Honeywell, Syosset, N.Y., is uniquely positioned to serve emerging home systems because it supplies nearly all the subsystems that traditionally make up home control. The company is taking a more decentralized strategy towards overall home integration.
Jim Filer, director of CE for Honeywell Security and Custom Electronics, explains the companyâ€™s Internet connection module (ICM) system.
â€œInstead of approaching home systems from a main controller box or as part of the subsystem being the controller, we say let the subsystems do their thing,â€ he says.
In essence, an ICM is placed at the head of each subsystem. Rather than being wired to a central hub, each ICM serves as a communicative brain that is a singular cog in a greater network of ICMs. The intelligence is spread among the subsystems, which Filer calls â€œthe glue.â€
The Honeywell system is reliant on structured wiring to connect all the ICMs, which communicate in a common IP-based language. With this type of system, subsystems act independently and are installed in typical fashion, and intersystem communication provides more tailored control.
Technologies are migrating to the home environment quickly. Getting in on the action requires an analysis of which end of the market you are aiming for, and an understanding of the technology platforms that make up that market segment.
Sidebar 1: Major Home Control Makers Catching the Z-WaveThe real sweet spot for home systems is the mass market, and it has been an elusive target so far. Even as more and more structured wiring is going into new homes these days, some industry participants think the development of a robust wireless platform will open the market wide.
But until now, wireless home control applications have either been unreliable, low-cost,
hobby-type gear or the super-expensive, proprietary high-end systems few could afford.
Proponents of Z-Wave wireless technology hope that situation is changing rapidly. More than 150 companies have joined the Z-Wave Alliance â€” including most of the major players in all phases of home control â€” and control products based on the chipset technology from Zensys, Upper Saddle River, N.J., are just coming to the fore.
â€œItâ€™s fast becoming the de facto protocol for home control and entertainment control,â€ maintains Zensys CEO Tony Shakib.
â€œWe are providing the technology to hundreds of companies that are the best-in-class category to come up with products to make it very affordable to the masses, and all of these things are talking to each other,â€ Shakib says, referencing the required interoperability so vital to Z-Waveâ€™s development.
This is a new development in home control that a wireless technology is being adopted by the industryâ€™s leading players, and they are developing interoperable products lightning-fast.
Shakib says all the product development is happening in waves. The first wave included major in-home device makers.
Major lighting control makers like Leviton, Intermatic, Sylvania and Cooper first gravitated to Z-Wave. Remote control companies like Logitech, UEI, SMK and Monster have adopted it, and now advanced RF remote control is possible.
Then the audio/visual players joined the momentum, and soon after networking companies like Linksys and Cisco started using the wireless technology. Even Intel is investing, hoping more PCs with its chipsets will be sold as the brains behind smart home control systems.
Sidebar 2: ZigBee Alliance Also in the RunningBob Heile, chairman of the ZigBee Alliance, calls the current activity around the ZigBee standard â€œa general, exciting, kind-of product introduction phase,â€ and adds, â€œThe marketplace is really starting to blossom with active development.â€
He says the ZigBee Alliance has shipped more than 10,000 development kits, has between 1,000 and 2,000 companies actively developing the standard, and has enlisted â€œsix of the top 10 semiconductor manufacturers on the planetâ€ to make ZigBee chips. The first generation of home automation products were introduced earlier this year, mostly from niche companies.
The first products introduced included automated household lighting, entertainment, and heating and cooling, as well as home network controls connected to cell phone technology. In-home patient monitoring and automated meter reading are some of the applications covered by the first generation of ZigBee products as well.
Initial product makers include Control4, Cambridge Consultants, Golden Power, Nuri Telecom and Vantage Controls.
Sidebar 3: Standardization: CEA Working to Define the FutureAlthough home control systems are developing from the low-voltage subsystems that make up security or lighting control and data and Internet connectivity networks, itâ€™s clear that entertainment is driving a lot of new technologies across all corners of homes these days.
The problem is the televisions cannot communicate with PCs, and audio and video devices are growing ever more complex at their own rates and differing speeds.
Enter the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), Arlington, Va., which can count many of the manufacturers of these devices as members. Their vision, evolving through what is called the CEA-2027 standard, will allow all these devices to communicate with each other by sharing a common, built-in user interface.
Using IP (Internet Protocol) as a common language and the 1394 FireWire interface as a platform, the 2027 standard was written as a solution to all the device diversification.
Another interesting standard being developed at CEA is CEA-2030, a multi-room audio cabling standard that provides guidelines to builders on how to install wiring for entertainment throughout the home.
Current structured wiring contains basic speaker wiring, but with the advent of more complex multi-room audio systems, beefy home theaters, and even new touch screens and controllers requiring better connection, the push for better multi-room audio cabling was born.
â€œWhat (2030) does is allow an integrator, electrician or home builder to make decisions about where to put speaker wire and multi-room audio speaker wiring, connectors and touch pads,â€ explained Megan Hayes, the CEAâ€™s point person on 2030.
Builders seem to be receptive. The latest CEA study done in conjunction with the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), Washington, D.C., about builders offering technology showed that builders are increasingly turning to distributed audio in new homes.