Monday, February 07, 2011

2011, the year of the Smart Home

It's a busy time in the home automation world. January is the time of the year when vendors show off their wares in show, after show, after show. And this year it appears the the convergence of the ARM processor, the Android OS, the Linux Embedded OS and various home automation protocols is about to flood the world with real smart home technology. This looks to be the year of Home Automation!

My view of home automation

I've been tauting my HA definition but I'd like to add that US consumers (I'm uncertain of the rest of the world) want as much wireless as possible. Running wires is unsightly and it can be expensive. So any HA system should have as few wire as is practical. There are some areas where wired makes more sense such as on bandwidth intensive video and security sensors. Actually I'd take this one step further. If my wife has taught me anything (please don't tell her that) it's that none of the home automation should be visible and it better work every time.

Z-Wave - Wireless home automation

I hate eating crow but it looks like Z-Wave has become the closest thing to the de facto replacement for X10. While it isn't as cheap as X10, it does appear to cover much of what X10 had and a few more things. It's also more dependable than X10 though not perfect. They have the standard modules (lamp, appliance, wall socket, wall switch, etc.), door locks, thermostats, and sensors (including power usage). The inclusion of power usage is important. The power usage is key, as most folks aren't going to spend the money to install a $100 light switch when a $5 one works just fine. That money better buy convenience and be able to save some money in the long run. Of course it will really come down to the software and it's presentation. A straight forward table of usage isn't very pretty, especially when I can look at graphs and charts which (might) display useful information at a glance.


ZigBee has taken its time about getting to market and we're just starting to see ZigBee devices. I'm hoping to get my hands on some soon so I can see how easy they are to develop for. Since the US Government has standardized on ZigBee it looks like they'll gain some traction. ZigBee has (or will have as not much of it is out there yet) the same products and features but that standardization may be a problem for Z-Wave. We'll see, cost is still an unknown in all of this.


For the longest time the MIPS processor was the darling of the consumer electronics (it's a good processor) . Almost every consumer router had one form or another of these processors in it. Then along came cell phones and the low powered ARM processor. The ARM was low power (as in green, eco-friendly better) and cell phones made them even more low powered. But cell phones also need more CPU power (for multimedia, apps and dealing with the phone and internet access all at the same time). I can now get a 1.2GHz ARM plug computer with 512M of RAM, Ethernet and USB for less than $120. I can get a MIPS router for about $60 with a 240MHz processor with 32M of RAM. This allowed ARM to jump past MIPS and the Intel family. Intel has reacted and we're starting to see the Atom get more traction. If Intel can beat the performance and come close on the on the low power aspect Intel should be back in the game, we'll see. But in the mean time we're seeing another by product of the cell phone revolution, tablets. Suddenly they are all over and everyone wants one they have great use as interfaces to devices such as our home. Yes your home just became another device with home automation.


The Apple fans will have a fits as I mention Android is crashing their party. And while Apple may have started this with the iPod, iPhone and iPad they remained closed to everyone except those that bought into the circle. On the other hand the Android OS is more open and everyone seems to be getting into the game. Proof; I'm not seeing Apple iOS on TVs, refrigerators, microwave ovens and assorted other devices and appliances. I am seeing that with the Android OS. I'm not saying that Android is a technically better OS but it's close and it will get better. They now refer to ARMdroid like the once refereed to WIntel. I think this won't kill Apple but it will allow Android to become ubiquitous.


I've separated Linux from Android. While Android is based on Linux it is distinct enough in several features to keep it separate from Linux. While many smaller embedded devices use their own firmware or OS the one thing that Linux does allow is for the quick development of application. Many of the tools (programming and OS such as DHCP, NTP, etc.) are built in. An abundance of languages doesn't hurt either. ;-) Also to support complex networking it's not too bad on the memory and CPU requirements. Windows has returned to the embedded game with a new ARM support but if it's anything like what I had on my Pantech phone (nice phone, lousy OS - WinCE) then they won't make much of an impact.

Bringing it all together

What we're seeing is small wall wart sized computers that can run home automation software, are running Linux, are able to access the internet and can be connected to from any smart phone, tablet device and even your desktop computer. ;-) They're easy to install, easy to use and not a burden on the wallet. Additional services can be added to make these devices more useful every day.


Well, it's finally here and I'd be reminiscent if I didn't mention the lack of IPv4 addresses that has suddenly and without warning appeared before our very eyes. ;-) So now we're down to the predicted milestone and the silence is deafening. One would have expected a bit more fanfare. I'm beginning to see more: 'Oh, it will be as big a problem as the Y2K issue.'. Sadly if the folks behind the scenes are able to do their jobs without a hiccup it will be. So why is this sad, because it is the way of engineering. We have no value when things are working and less when they are not. But I do expect that this will be a bigger deal because it's a lot closer to the end user that the Y2K bug. Their computers, their devices (such as routers) and their cell phones will be affected. When it's that close, things tend to get noticed a bit more.