RANT: Another Day, Another “Incompatible” Home Automation Range

Earlier this week another major manufacturer (Panasonic) announced a raft of new smart home hardware, software and cloud services. They join the long list of world-wide corporations producing these ‘standalone’ systems.

It’s almost 5 years since I wrote the Smart Home Utopia piece, but where’s the progress?  In a world where any manufacturers TV plugs into any other makers blu-ray player and any file created on a PC can be used on a Mac, can the home automation industry really not get its act together and come up with a global standard for information exchange in the smart home?

Until this happens we’re doomed to be forever stuck in a VHS vs Betamax world.  Until someone starts to realise that this incompatibility nightmare is strangling an entire industry we’re never going to make it into every home the way we should.   While we still need to employ an integrator just to get our wall switches to talk to more than our lights there’s no hope for mass market uptake.

Rant? Maybe, let us know your thoughts in the comments below and check out this great thread in our Forums.

Smart Home Utopia

16 Comments on "RANT: Another Day, Another “Incompatible” Home Automation Range"

  1. It’d be beautiful if everything worked together.. unfortunately there’s little commercial benefit to manufactuers.. no lock in = no cornering the market. In the mean time i’m fairly content with my rfxtrx433.. and waiting patiently for Insteon to launch their UK kit.

  2. Simon Haslam | August 24, 2012 at 1:30 pm |

    Yep, spot on.

    It is a very short-term view by manufacturers that is crippling the market. We need open standards and for people to adopt them. At that point manufacturers compete on having the best products – some can make highly specialised products for some niche (let’s say central heating control) and others can make more general ranges with wider use (e.g. utilities measurement, appliance controllers).

    Imagine the modern networked world without agreed standards – no TCP/IP, no HTTP, no GSM, no wifi, etc…! Evidence appears to be that open standards ultimately provide more progress and opportunity than proprietary systems.

    The closest I think we have to an open standard in HA is xAP (which was sadly forked by xPL) but some manufacturers need get together and invest in both open protocols and evangenlism.

  3. This is disappointing to hear. Until Manufactures start playing the long game there will never be a Mass Market for Smart Homes Controls.
    There are systems out there that provide a platform for control such as KNX where, as Simon points out, there are niche manufactures and products along with the Main stream products. It would be great to see this platform expanded for more services as I believe it is the closet thing to the IT examples above.

  4. Great article!

    Mike I think that view of locking customers in is very short sighted. It would be like google designing a web-browser that only opens gmail, but refuses access to yahoo, hotmail, etc. no one in their right mind would use it.

    To me there are 2 levels at which an automation system has to be open.

    1. The hardware interface level. I should be able to pick any of the shelf PIR, light switch or reed contact for my windows and connect it, without having to pay an extortionate amount for an interface box. To me this is where KNX falls short.

    2. The soft interface. I understand that it makes sense to design end to end solutions for a seamless customer experience. Apple is the prime example of this. But there have to be open interfaces that are properly documented so that you can integrate them into the bigger picture!

    Openness is the key. Some manufacturers treat their IP and RS232 protocols like the crown jules and make you jump through hoops to get access to them. Can anyone tell me why? Is it not in their best interest to publish these so I will buy more products and integrate them into my system?

  5. A source at Panasonic tells me I will receive tech docs “soon”. So, Harmony will seamlessly ‘glue’ this to your other HA kit in time; that, after all, is what Harmony does!

  6. It’s never going to happen. Not only do companies come and go, but so do new technologies. This is why I decided to build a hybrid home control system from the outset. It’s the only way to do it.

    More info here:

  7. Stephen Jones | August 24, 2012 at 8:27 pm |

    Short answer: I agree

    Long answer: Who or what organisation would start this “common comms”? It seems that all the different various manufacturers are happy selling and developing their own hardware but with the optional module to add IP or RS232 gateways, which at least makes it possible but not easy for comms between dissimilar systems. As an integrator I think it takes too much, too much money and is too complicated to automate a home compared to what it could be like if devices worked together and the setup & debug software was a lot better.

    PS – nice photo 🙂

  8. Like most people here, I agree that we should have a standard, but no manufacturer is going to disrupt their business model by doing so.

    Therefore, it’s probably going to be software geeks that create a standard, and build conduits/interfaces to all the other variants. At that point, manufacturers will (hopefully) start incorporating that API into their hardware.

    Disclaimer: My Minerva home automation software project does this, and I wouldn’t spend time doing it, if I didn’t think it was the ‘right’ way to go 🙂

  9. I am happily using X10, DMX and KNX together controlled both by LinuxMCE. A KNX powered sensor controls the DMX lights, all via LinuxMCE. Most stuff works with a single system, i.e. KNX in my system, to be sure, the essentials work without a computer. But other not so important stuff is linked by the computer.

    Oh, and yes, it would be great if manufacturer would start opening up their API documentation, so that things like turning on/off an AV device via TCP/IP works.

  10. > can the home automation industry really not get
    > its act together and come up with a global standard
    > for information exchange in the smart home?

    I’m guessing was intended as a rhetorical question but : no, they cannot. A “global” standard will not emerge from this industry. Not in it’s current state, not with the size of market being what it is (luxury market), and not while companies continue to pursue their current business models.

    > Until someone starts to realise that this
    > incompatibility nightmare is strangling an entire
    > industry we’re never going to make it into every
    > home the way we should.

    I do think many realize the issue but changing business models mid-flight is extremely hard to do. It will require a jolt from an outsider, a change of dynamics, a some sort of disruption.

    The current business models are largely based on selling hardware and installation. And selling those to the luxury market. The incentive therefore is exactly on the opposite of creating any kind of standard or interoperability. The incumbents won’t change this, as per the innovator’s dilemma. The dealership channel is too expensive, and they’re too reliant on it. The products and margins that work in the luxury market do not work in mainstream market. And they’re all perfectly happy to be where they are (in the luxury market).

    So if you’re waiting for an answer from *within* the current home automation industry, you’ll be still waiting when you’re an old man. IMO.

    Hope you’re having a good (warm) summer 🙂

    Best regards,

    Juha Lindfors
    OpenRemote, Inc.

  11. If the Industry doesn’t come up with a Standard, then others should. And it happens. I personally like the xPL project (http://xplproject.org.uk/), which is a kind of meta protocol which is sitting on top of existing protocols. The only problem is that it’s never supported by the vendors, and so xPL applications tend to outdate quite fast.

  12. I like xPL too.

    But it is a chicken-egg problem.

    1) You need vendors actually wanting interoperable protocols (incumbents dont — they’re protecting their absurd hardware margins)

    2) Without the incumbents it’s a massive investment for any vendor to build a new ecosystem around a new protocol (you’ll need to cover media center, A/V, lighting, HVAC, security, blinds/drapes/curtains/shades, etc.). Otherwise the customer won’t be happy — they want everything to work together.

    3) If you’re a specialist vendor focusing on just one area, you’re forced to integrate with one of the existing, closed and proprietary components to enter the market. Otherwise your products won’t be included. See for example Mobotix recent announcement with Savant. This is only way for them to enter the market held by the few incumbents who want nothing but protect their luxury market segment. At that point, additional protocol or interoperability looks like just additional engineering cost with low-to-no return.

    So I think in order for a new protocol to emerge, there must be a way to integrate with the existing legacy. A software abstraction that works and can be integrated without regard to the underlying protocols (xPL, Z-wave, AMX, Lutron, Zigbee, KNX, IP-based, T-24, etc.).

    This allows a specialist vendor (let’s say in curtains and shades, or in doorstations) to integrate with a single target while gaining ability to enter the market with low cost. If the mediating platform in the middle (a true middleware in this sense) provides integrations to xPL or to other legacy protocols, is open with low barrier and equal access to everyone, then the newcomer can enter and gain those integrations “automatically”. They’re then immediately eligible as part of the overall solution targeted towards the end user (who just wants everything to interoperate), regardless which protocol they want to support (such as xPL) and not tied to the proprietary integrations offered by the incumbents in their — ultimately failing — attempt to protect absurd hardware margins.

    So you need to crack the door open slowly — allow some new entrants to be included with low barriers to entry that do support interoperability at fundamental level while being able to offer fully legacy-integrated solutions while the new ecosystem builds up.

    But expecting a change at one fell swoop is hard indeed.

  13. And to get back to the original article:

    1) Any company that comes up with a new proprietary protocol to enter (or attempt to enter) home automation market hasn’t done their homework. It’s a dumb thing to do (as pointed by the original rant)

    2) Exception to rule is a company that has such deep pockets they can pour countless millions into their market entry to build a new ecosystem that includes all aspects of automation (HVAC, lights, security, yadda yadda yadda). And even this approach has a high chance of failing.

  14. Mark Harrison | September 2, 2012 at 9:55 pm |

    I agree it’s a shame, but the nature of technologies over the previous couple of decades has been to fork rather than converge.

    Linux managed to fork not just into distributions but ‘families’ with the ‘Debian / Ubuntu axis’ aligned against the ‘Fedora / RedHat alliance’.

    In Home Automation, the nearest thing we had to a multi-vendor protocol was developed by UK enthusiasts in the original xAP spec…

    … but within the first year of that, some of them wouldn’t compromise on their vision of how xAP should work, some didn’t like that vision so forked off xPL (which, let us not forget, originally stood for xAP Lite), and others got so fed up of the bickering that we left both camps within 6 months.

    Personally, I think that xAP had the better architecture, but xPL had the better hub applications in the first year, and neither ever really took off.

    Mark (former Chair of the xAP group, and the person who is still ‘controller’ for the IANA port allocation.)

  15. Gavin Sallery | October 7, 2012 at 3:51 pm |

    This is an interesting discussion, and in many ways goes right to the core of the “problem” which home automation currently faces. The case for a standard, uniform API against which users and installers can expect things to “just work” has been well made. It is also clear that no single manufacturer is likely to want to invest in establishing such a common standard, as in the present market it is very easy to capture marginal purchases of automation equipment – once you’ve sold someone a light switch using Protocol Z, it is very likely that this customer’s next lamp dimmer will also use Protocol Z.

    Furthermore (and this point is key), we are unlikely to ever see an Apple-style monolithic vertical integrator in the home automation space. Personal computing was a blank slate, which in the early days did not require compatibility with anything outside of your chosen manufacturer’s ecosystem – making it possible for Apple to totally control the hardware platform, taking monopoly-style profits (and improving the user experience as well, I might add). Home automation, on the other hand, is all about augmenting and improving a world which already exists: there are many incumbents, and nobody is going to persuade consumers to buy a new dishwasher in order for it to be compatible with their doorbell.

    Given the above facts, it is obvious that the home automation industry needs a unified open standard. It is also obvious that it is not in the interests of manufacturers to provide such a thing. Can a solution come from the community? I believe that this is also unlikely; an ad-hoc effort is unlikely to be able to keep up with the rapid introduction of new technologies (such as the one which kicked off this discussion!), nor to be able to guarantee a level of maintenance and support which would be acceptable to most consumers.

    The problem, then, can be re-stated as this: what is needed is a business model, which allows someone to make enough money to untangle the Gordian knot of home automation protocol compatibility. If a revenue stream could be created, which would pay for the development, maintenance and support of such bridges and drivers which are necessary to unify home automation, this would be a massive spur to the adoption of home automation as a whole.

    I believe there is a solution to this problem.

  16. Open protocols are one thing, open hardware is another. (Other issues aside) one reason X10 was so prominent in the US was because the devices were so “hackable.” Its was fun to take an X10 device, remove a few components and/or add some others to change functionality. Of course, it helped that the devices were cheap.

    Has anyone tried to modularize the components of the hardware devices? For example, open spec the mechanics and electronics of a light switch so that the individual components could manufactured independently and then “assembled” by the installer or end-user?

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