Home automation should be smart, but simple

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Thursday, July 16, 2015

YARMOUTH, Maine—Home automation experts have heard the message loud and clear: simplify, simplify, simplify.

As exciting as the ultimate smart home may seem, end users want control of their home automation devices. Many homeowners have thought about their priorities before they talk to dealers—they want their home technology working for them, not vice versa.

Rob Puric, director of the connected home division at Honeywell, based in Morristown, N.J., said his company’s research produced feedback from end users such as, “Help me save money” and “This feature gives me joy, comfort … I just want connectedness” as well as simplicity, quality and control.

For example, Puric said, people “want a second keypad as a backup. They want something to reach for in the middle of the night in the master bedroom.” At Icontrol Networks, based in Redwood City, Calif., Greg Roberts, VP of marketing, said the company’s state-of-home-automation report taught his team valuable lessons.

“The key thing from the report is that the smart home has to address common, daily needs of consumers in their home,” Roberts said. “The fun and cool technologies, the bells and whistles—they are not going to drive the mass market for the consumer home. The questions consumers are asking are, ‘What can address my daily life? What can help me manage my home and family?’ ”

Standard home automation features in 2015 generally refer to integrated devices that control lighting, thermostats, geo-fencing technology, video cameras, entertainment technologies, house door locks and garage door access.

From that list, the latest developments changing the market are the geo-fencing services and garage door automation, said Jay Kenny, senior vice president of marketing at Alarm.com, headquartered in Vienna, Va.

Geosensors [which refers to a device] and geo-fencing [a virtual boundary alerting the device] are all about simplifying life. “So if you leave home, you’ll be alerted if you forgot to arm the security system," Kenny said. "It will also automatically adjust the thermostat and turn the lights on and off for you.”

These developments create “a good opportunity for dealers to go back to existing clients and up-sell,” Kenny said.

There’s a new level of integration that consumers are becoming aware of, according to Avi Rosenthal, VP of security and control at Nortek Security & Control, based in Carlsbad, Calif. “There are more points of data collection, such as automatic light bulbs,” Rosenthal said. Devices are “more attendant to people’s lives,” he said. “A door would sense when I‘m arriving.”

Greg Blackett, senior product manager at Tyco Security Products, based in Westford, Mass., and Toronto, talked about another avenue of integration. Consumers are beginning to notice that home automation products are available at big retail stores. Blackett believes this will be a challenge and an opportunity.

"There's a lot of work to be done in this area in terms of reliability and standardization," Blackett said. Putting a positive spin on what could be a market disruption, Blackett called the possibility of dealers integrating off-the-shelf equipment into security systems "a huge opportunity for dealers, manufacturers and home owners … It’s a huge opportunity in terms of connectivity … Eventually we’ll be able to integrate with whatever system you have.”

For Joe Lininger, VP of marketing at Guardian Protection Services, based in Warrendale, Pa., the exciting developments are the ones most homeowners don’t see or deal with—the software and the brains of the smart home.

“The backend of systems is getting more intelligent,” Lininger said. “Devices are evolving and they’re getting better all the time. It’s the thinking part of the home that we’re trying to improve.” For the bottom-line homeowner, he said, this means “the refinement of geo-fence, energy management and smart thermostat features.”

“The next wave,” according to Roberts of Icontrol, involves cloud solutions. He noted that Nest’s thermostats apply cloud analytics to “learn” customers’ thermostat control habits.

Rosenthal said a significant upcoming challenge will be the rethinking of recurring revenue for dealers, as more home automation devices and systems become available at large retail stores such as Lowe’s and Home Depot. “There’s about to be a new chapter,” he said. “The days of the $50- to $70 monthly charge [for installers and dealers] are waning.”

The security industry needs to figure out “how to take advantage of new products on the market through companies such as Apple or Samsung” by offering home automation systems, devices and or solutions that are more adaptive to existing systems, Rosenthal said.

The increasing sophistication of end users, the relentless innovations in security, appliance and entertainment technology, and homeowners’ desire for control make the issue of training for dealers and installers more complex that it was a few years ago. SSN interviews revealed a range of approaches.

At Dennis Sage Home Entertainment, based in Phoenix, the installers want their education in person, rather than digitally or from a print manual, said Marty Hayse, the company’s director of sales and marketing. The firm sells and services products produced by Alarm.com.

“The responsibility for a company such as Alarm.com, in order to evolve and remain relevant, is to convey to our people, face-to-face … not through a webinar,” Hayse said. “The learning is faster and better face-to-face. We’re pushing the envelope here with technology. We need to make it more useful.”

The same dynamic applies to dealer-consumer interactions. “Do-it-yourself only scratches the surface,” Hayse said.

Roberts said dealers need two types of training: technical assistance on how to add home automation solutions to existing security systems in the home, and help with educating the end user on how to use the system, or “how to use and control the security automation systems schedule, rather than call ‘the guy’ ” to do it for you after installation.

“What [has been] successful is installers using the systems themselves in their own homes” before working on a customer’s network, Roberts said. This is a tremendous help for homeowners who dream of smart homes equipped with products they bought off the shelf from big-box retailers, but in reality want the assistance of professional installers who know what they’re doing.

“We look at what’s been proven successful,” Roberts said. “The answer is that what’s offered by leading security and cable companies are professional installers. At the end of the day, it’s a life-saving solution we’re talking about. That’s great comfort for the do-it-for-me audience.”

The range of responses on dealer training for home automation systems reveals the unpredictability of an industry sub-market that emerges without a blueprint.

Nortek’s Rosenthal noted that “the industry moves so fast, there’s a steep learning curve” for dealers who need to explore seminars, trade shows and other educational resources.

Blackett, on the other hand, said, “Technology, in a sense, enables new types of training,” with dealers using new apps with the aid of manuals supplied by the manufacturer, through a tablet, PDFs or web browsers.

“Technology itself is becoming more intuitive,” Blackett said. “Now, if you haven’t been spending the past 20 or 30 years in the security field, the technology is still becoming more intuitive. We still recommend training, but technology is taking down some barriers.”

Calling in the experts when you’re a little over your head in your smart home doesn’t have to mean the proverbial house call, with the tech doctor showing up at your house.

“The technology training we do enables dealers to conduct panel communications remotely without driving a truck into your driveway,” said Alarm.com’s Kenny.

Those who haven't spent two or three decades in the security business “are not necessarily educated on how to get what they want, but they are educated to know what they want,” Rosenthal said. He referred to an AT&T commercial featuring a middle-aged man at the family camp, asking his son and daughter-in-law whether they had turned everything off at the residential home, before checking it out himself remotely. “That did wonders for our business,” Rosenthal said.

“Smart homes are now more of a solutions sell than a fear-based sell,” said Kenny.

Simplify, simplify, simplify.

“For simplicity, one point of control is very important, whether it be for lighting scenes, smart thermostats, cameras or garage doors,” said Lininger. “One app, one control point, with everything integrated all into one place.”