So What is This Home Automation Thingy Anyway?

By Grant Clauser, January 18, 2013

My editorial colleagues and I always chuckle (OK, we cringe) when we read an article from the mainstream media (i.e., not a consumer electronics writer) that refers to a Jetson’s lifestyle or the home of the future whenever the subject of home automation or home control comes up. Even now, in 2013, people are impressed by such simple things as universal remotes, and they believe that home automation refers to things from a SyFy TV show.

This week a writer for CNN wrote an article on home automation products seen at last week’s CES 2013 and called the world of automation “young and exciting.” Yes, it is exciting, but young? Electronic House has been covering home automation for 25 years. The author also claims that because of “conflicting standards… the real dream of a fully connected home is still a ways off.”

I have to wonder if the author has an idea of what the “fully connected home” actually is. As we’ve shown over the years, there’s very little in the way of electronic systems that can’t be integrated by a professional in home automation. There’s nothing rare, unusual or Jetson-like about it. However, a truly integrated home control system is not a DIY project, and perhaps that’s what the authors of articles like that expect.

Fixing a roof is not, for most people, a DIY job either. Recently a heavy storm blew some siding and shingles off my house so I called a professional to give me an estimate for the repairs and do the work, but that won’t lead me to claim that true universal home covering is out of reach.

When articles like this complain that home automation either doesn’t work or isn’t ready or is too complicated, the subtext is usually something different. Either the author doesn’t really understand home automation or the author does, but just thinks it’s too expensive and unnecessary (I’m generalizing, so cut me some slack).

Part of the problem is that the term “home automation” is a really lousy term. Automation isn’t really what most of the systems actually do. Automation implies that something happens without a person having to intervene, when the reality about these systems is that people are intervening, just in more convenient and electronically connected ways.

The article I initially referred to focused on a variety of smartphone-based DIY control solutions shown at the Consumer Electronics show. While many of them are pretty cool, the author and her sources correctly point out that few of those systems are easily interoperable, and if a person wants to go that route he or she may end up with an iPhone filled with a dozen different apps that can’t communicate with each other. There are a lot of reasons for the incongruity of the self-help control category, including costs and licensing of technologies, but the world of the smart home isn’t really that chaotic.

Readers of Electronic House probably already know that true home systems integration is available, and not only for the wealthy. It all depends on what people want.

And that’s the other problem. Many people, especially people who are new to the concept, don’t really know what they want. Do you want to be able to turn your house lights on or off without hitting a wall switch? Do you want an email to let you know when your kids get home from school? Do you want your drapes to automatically close when the sun shines on your new sofa? All of that is available, and not difficult to find or have done, but like fixing your roof, you probably can’t do it yourself. Or if you’re like me, you’re just afraid of falling off.