How Apps are Evolving to Do More Home Automation
As homeowners become comfortable using apps to stay connected to their homes and their expectations rise, the next generation of apps is evolving now.
In just the past couple of years, apps — and the mobile devices they inhabit — have revolutionized how we interact with the world. Security and home automation and control are no exception. “There is a big shift to a clear preference for the mobile device,” says Jay Kenny, vice president of marketing for Vienna, Va.-based Alarm.com. He explains that currently more than 80 percent of Alarm.com customer interactions are conducted via mobile devices, whereas, previously, 75 percent of activity was conducted via the website. Attributing the shift to improvements in smartphone technology that have made smartphones faster and much more capable than those from just a couple years ago, Gordon Hope, general manager of AlarmNet Services for Honeywell Security, based in Melville, N.Y. reports that today 95 percent of homeowner interaction with their security and home automation systems is through portable devices.
Apps for security and home automation systems offer homeowners new capabilities and convenience when interacting with their homes and can provide added value beyond the software’s features. “Security gives peace of mind, and they can take that peace of mind with them when they leave home,” says Lisa Ciappetta, senior director of marketing and technology for Chicago–based Protection 1.
Not long ago, simply having an app available for the system was an intriguing add-on for homeowners. Now with apps for everything, their expectations are rising. As manufacturers look to meet demands, the next generation of apps is evolving to include greater access, increased functionality, and enhanced user experience.
Most manufacturers and dealers currently offer residential mobile apps, though the features and functionality may vary. To reach the greatest number of homeowners, companies are striving to make their apps available across different platforms, offering apps for iOS and Android systems on smartphones, tablets and other devices.
However, giving homeowners what they want can be a challenge. “You’re not really designing for one item. You really have to design with universal interfaces in mind,” says Greg Rhoades, director of marketing for Leviton Security and Automation (formerly HAI by Leviton) in New Orleans.
The proliferation of smart devices also has led to a trend towards fewer traditional keypads or touchscreens in the home. “The traditional keypad is largely a forgotten unit on the wall,” proffers Shawn Welsh, vice president of marketing and business development for Telular, located in Atlanta.
While homeowners are increasingly using smartphones and tablets to replace dedicated, in-home devices, some standard devices are still needed in key locations and for those times when the homeowner misplaces the phone or tablet. Manufacturers must design their programs to accommodate multiple devices even within the same system.
“The No. 1 thing you have to get is a common look to all interfaces consumers will interact with. That is critical,” Hope believes.
Welsh says homeowners appreciate when the look and feel of the mobile app matches the control panel on the wall, “They feel like it’s a connected experience continuing from home,” he says. “By matching the mobile experience to the in-home panel interface, the customer immediately feels comfortable,” Welsh concludes.
The continuity of the experience is important beyond aesthetics. A common interface reduces the learning curve and encourages users to engage with the app, says Ric Johnson, owner of Elite Systems Solutions, the HAI/Leviton division of Right at Home Technologies in Waynesfield, Ohio. “It’s really familiar. What you see on your phone is what you see on the touchscreen at home. It makes it easy to train the client because HAI is smart about using graphics, symbols and words that make it easy to use,” he shares.
Providing a common interface is just one way that companies are improving user experience with modifications to their apps. “There’s a never-ending thirst for integration,” Hope says. As homeowners want to add new functionality to their systems — from the alarm system status alerts, to HVAC and lighting control, to video — and the additional systems require more apps, the advantages of integrating the home can be lost in the clutter of icons on the user’s mobile device. “It seems that we are in a world where we think everything is easier that is app-driven. They are great, but if not organized, they can be burdensome,” Hope describes.
Avi Rosenthal, vice president of security/control for Carlsbad, Calif.-based Linear agrees, “Users are getting very frustrated with having multiple apps for multiple devices.”
Manufacturers are responding by streamlining their apps to make it easier for homeowners to get the features they want and manage their systems efficiently. “When new releases come out, they include usability improvements. The security industry is new to apps. Manufacturers rely on experts in the field and are finding and hearing from users new ways to do things,” Ciappetta says.
Two factors Honeywell has been focusing on are speed and data security. Obviously, the faster the app works, the better it is from the user’s perspective. However, Hope says that security is critical. “That [security] is probably more important. More often than not, consumers don’t initially think of it, but, as we connect more things to the cloud, it becomes a concern,” Hope explains. Given Honeywell’s extensive experience in banking, government and other highly security-sensitive areas, security has always been a priority for the company. Only now are consumers beginning to be concerned with it, Hope says.
Most apps offer remote access and control functions, such as arming and disarming the security system and remote control of HVAC, lighting and locks, as well as event–triggered notifications to the user’s phone. Manufacturers are introducing additional features to help better meet customers’ needs.
While securing most access points in the home is routine, in the past, garage doors have been especially challenging to secure. Working with garage-door manufacturers, a number of companies have recently enabled integration of the garage door with the security panel. Apps like Protection 1’s eSecure 2.0 app can alert homeowners when the garage door has been left open. Honeywell Security’s Total Connect app, Bosch Security Systems’s Remote Security Control app, and Alarm.com’s mobile app also enable users to close the door remotely. Ryan Boder, president of suretyCAM, an Alarm.com dealer located in Columbus, Ohio, says that feature is a welcome addition, as customers have often assumed that they could remotely control their garage door and often were disappointed to discover that was not the case.
Recent upgrades to Leviton Security and Automation’s Snap-Link Mobile app include a room configuration list to group control for devices by room, says Rhoades, enabling quicker and easier access to the devices they want to control at a specific location. “We’re trying to streamline this and do so with fewer button pushes,” he says. Alarm.com and Bosch Security Systems also have added options to more efficiently group devices on their app.
Apps from Alarm.com and Bosch Security Systems include an option to control systems at multiple locations, allowing homeowners to check on their primary residence, vacation homes or other location from the same app.
The Bosch Remote Security Control app also can manage access by multiple users. “With our app, the dealer has complete control over whether the app is functional and can set expiration dates [for that app],” says Tom Mechler, product marketing manager of Bosch Security Systems, located in Fairport, N.Y. Programmed expiration dates can be useful to limit access to some users, such as renters who have moved.
New video options are among the most popular features with homeowners. Thanks to the availability of greater bandwidth and increased upload speeds, video has improved tremendously, Boder describes. He adds that 4G telephone connections make the viewing experience better as well: “Viewing video is so much snappier and faster now.”
Apps that provide video features can enhance security of the home, but many homeowners are drawn to the self-monitoring capability. “From a security standpoint there are benefits to having a security camera and recorder, but the perception of people wanting that to look in and check on the house is what is really the driving factor here,” Boder believes.
Location-based services utilizing the GPS capability of smart devices are entering the app market. Last year Alarm.com introduced a location-based alert function with its Geo-Services offering, which sends alerts to homeowners if the security system has not been armed, or if it has been disarmed when no one is home. Geo-Services is sophisticated enough to account for the locations of multiple users; for example, if one resident is home and others are out, an alert will not be sent.
Alarm.com recently has added two new location-based features to its GeoServices, Kenny says. An energy management component allows the home automation system to be set in an energy-saving mode while residents are out and reset to a comfort mode when they return. For homeowners who are concerned about privacy with video cameras in the home, the system can use GPS data from their phones to deactivate interior cameras when residents are home.
More than just a convenience, apps actually enhance security by getting homeowners to use their systems and monitor their homes. Location- based services go a step further, making the system smarter and relying less on user actions.
“That’s one of the big changes in app features that actually improves the security of the house, “ says Boder, noting that the biggest problem with security systems is that homeowners don’t use them, and a security system can’t protect the home when it is not used. Boder says that using location data to alert them when they have left the home and not armed the system prompts more people to turn on the system. Estimating that about half of the time people leave the home, they forget to set the alarm, he says, “The GeoServices have almost erased that problem.”
More Dynamic Apps
Manufacturers are looking to location-based services and other options to design apps that make the system smarter and more customizable to the user.
“It all boils down to architecture, the way you build the software. Is it modifiable or static?” asks Rosenthal. He notes that Linear was not the first company to bring apps to the industry, but as they enter the market, they are looking to see what the next generation of apps will be like.
With the increasing capabilities of apps, their role in the system will change, “Rather than the app just being a gateway, because of the GeoServices, it has almost become a sensor feeding more information into the system,” Boder describes.
Rosenthal anticipates that location, date, time and temperature information provided by the mobile device app will be used by the security panel to enhance system operation and make it function more intuitively. “The time and spatial relationship between you, your home, and the app seems to be where the industry is headed,” he says. Other possibilities include systems that can identify user activity patterns. In the future, apps may identify these patterns and the system can “learn” to implement them without relying on the user to initiate the input.
As technology advances and expands what is possible with mobile devices, as well as in the security and home automation systems they connect with, apps will continue to evolve, responding to and driving customer demand. “Apps are here to stay. The capabilities are going to grow as customers expect more. It’s not a passing fad; apps will be here for the long run,” says Anne Insero, manager, public relations/media for Bosch Security Systems.
Apps for Dealers & Installers
Homeowners aren’t the only ones who have discovered the potential of apps in security and home automation. Smartphones and tablets are rapidly replacing demo kits and pricing books, as dealers are using apps to help them demonstrate features, facilitate installations, and manage accounts. Most dealers already use manufacturers’ system apps to show homeowners how to set up and use the features on their security and automation systems. However, a growing number of manufacturers are developing apps specifically to assist dealers.
Alarm.com’s MobileTech suite of apps, available for iOS and Android devices and as a mobile Web browser, facilitates installation, allowing technicians to see pictures of camera views and giving them the ability to communicate with, and troubleshoot connections with Z-Wave devices integrated into the system.
Ryan Boder says that suretyCAM has only recently begun using MobileTech, and their technicians are learning how useful its features can be. “It comes in handy in tough spots, makes troubleshooting on the go a little easier, or a quick account change here or there,” says suretyCAM technician Jason Carnahan.
MobileTech enables integrators to perform signal testing, check signal strength and connectivity, troubleshoot and test Z-wave automation networks. A system checklist helps make installations more systematic and prevents technicians from missing important steps. The app also has helped suretyCAM with logistics by enabling technicians to provide technical support and customer service from anywhere. Boder says this has freed up staff from sitting around the office waiting to perform tech support, reducing overhead and increasing employee efficiency.
Bosch Security Systems
Bosch Security Systems’ Advantage Line System Builder app enables the dealer to walk through the client’s home, building the video system as he goes from room to room. The dealer can select the number and types of cameras needed, mounts, and storage devices, says Anne Insero of Bosch Security Systems. A printable shopping list is created at the end to make system design and planning easier.
“We looked at the behaviors of our customers and how they put tablets in the hands of their salespeople,” says Gordon Hope of AlarmNet Services for Honeywell Security. “They are looking to the manufacturers to provide software that enables those devices to become sales tools.”
Honeywell’s dealers currently are using the Total Connect and LYNX Touch apps to demo these systems to their customers. To assist dealers and their sales staff, Honeywell is working on adding new features to help them demonstrate the product, including videos with the ability to highlight specific actions and offer help. He notes that there is a desire for apps to take a broader role in training and in setting up a system.
Linear is working on a dealer version of its LinearLinc app that will enable dealers to remotely program or modify systems, set up and monitor accounts and more, says Linear’s Avi Rosenthal. The dealer app will be available sometime in June.
Leviton Security and Automation
Greg Rhoades says that Leviton Security and Automation is working on a dealer app expected to be introduced later this year. In the app targeted for the iPad, the company plans to implement training and how-to videos, as well as options to help dealers plan a system by allowing them to select parts and create a shopping list during the initial walkthrough. They then can use this list to calculate pricing and email the estimate to homeowners. “We want to give our dealers and custom integrators the tools they need,” Rhoades describes.
Shawn Welsh of Telular says the company is in the process of developing an app for dealers, noting that functions to help installers troubleshoot problems are one of the features that will be offered in the dealer app. “It makes sense to have that ability on site,” Welsh says. The app is slated to be released in early 2014.
“Security is fairly well understood, but home automation still takes a fair amount of training for the homeowner to understand how to take advantage of all the features in the home,” says Christopher Miller, director of corporate strategy for 2GIG, based in Lehi, Utah. Dealers can use 2GIG’s Go!Control Demo App to demonstrate the system and show homeowners how easy it is to use, says Miller, noting that homeowners often fear using their security system because of the risk of setting off a false alarm.
“The app helps the homeowner grasp how powerful home automation can be,” shares Miller, pointing out that the app can be used to show the connection between security and home automation. For future versions of the app, 2GIG is exploring ways to help dealers with the order entry process.
No Cellular Connection, No Problem
Leviton Security and Automation offers a unique device to help homeowners stay in touch with their homes when a cellular connection is not available. The Snap-Link USB key has all of the information needed to access the home integration and security system, encrypted and self-contained in a USB device that can be attached to a keychain. The user can plug it into any computer with an Internet connection, and access the home system without worrying about downloading or leaving any secure data the computer, describes Greg Rhoades of Leviton Security and Automation.
Apps are revolutionizing how dealers sell. Ryan Boder says that suretyCAM’s sales staff used to lug around equipment and temporarily set up door locks, lamps, thermostats, and cameras in a customer’s home, hoping to construct a smoothly operating system on the fly. Now, rather than carry all of the equipment, the sales staff simply uses their cell phones (or tablets) to demonstrate the equipment. With a video camera focused on a group of devices set up in the showroom, salespeople show customers how to lock or unlock a door, turn on lights and more, by using the apps on their phones and observing it on the live video feed. As an added bonus, this strategy has reduced expenditures on additional demo equipment because multiple salespeople can access the same demo system simultaneously.
Mobile apps are the focus of the May smartHOME/smartBusiness column written by Helen Heneveld, Bedrock Learning Inc. (Sign up at SDMmag.com).
“The upside for security dealers is huge...Although only $4 to $8 a month for monitoring of each add-on, the devices needed are sold at a healthy profit and the RMR from these devices adds up as clients come on board,” Henelveld writes. The column, a new feature in every smartHOME monthly e-newsletter, offers insight on the business aspect of smartHOME businesses and installations. Read it at www.SDMmag.com/smartHOME-smartBUSINESS-May.
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