Can anyone get the connected home right?

  • We’ve been trying to make the idea of the connected home work for decades.  I can recall shortly after Disneyland opened they had a showcase home of the future which stayed in place from 1957 to 1967.  It was kind of funny was when it was torn down: It was so well built the wrecking ball just bounced off the walls, kind of a super hero house.

    Inside, they had a robot that vacuumed the floors (and looked a lot like a Roomba); modern appliances that today look rather dated.   In looking at the detailed pictures, you kind of wonder what happened.  While the interior clearly now looks a bit dated, the exterior of the home actually still looks more modern than much of what we have today – more than 50 years after this house was imagined and built by Disney and Monsanto. 

    So, here we are, 40 years after the home of the future (you have no idea how much I wanted this house) was demolished and we are still waiting for the convergence of technology and consumer electronics to make home automation real.   

    What’s the problem?

    From my perspective, ever since the home of the future, we really haven’t had anyone doing good target work on what the next home of the future should look like.  Instead, we have had a bunch of technology and consumer electronics companies run rampant with products that are hard to set up and even harder to use.  That doesn’t work together and are so hobbled by DRM that the experience just isn’t where it needed to be.

    We had Microsoft’s Media Center PC and Intel’s Viiv initiatives both with a lot of promise but extremely short on execution.  Apple tried with Apple TV, probably the least successful Apple product this decade, and we have had a number of attempts with Media Extenders which have fallen short with only the most recent Netgear EVA 8000 showing promise. 

    When Bill Gates built his house, I had hoped that the vision of a smart home, which he had created, would be cost reduced and by now would be available in products we could afford.  But this effort, like so many that could have defined Microsoft, was left incomplete and the house, as a prototype for the future, was largely a failure. 

    What we need is someone with a vision to drive the industry to create products that integrate, network, and can automate tasks beyond what our disconnected appliances, lighting systems, consumer electronics gear, and high tech gear do today.   In short, we need a technology Messiah that can lead the market into a much brighter future.

    What would the solution look like?

    Strangely enough, the demonstration by Intel for the UMPC concept comes close to what I think the home of the future should have. A technology envelope, some of which goes with you, and some of which exists in your car, your place of employment, and your home helping to manage your various informational, personal, and business needs.  

    The personal nature of the technology could be a future iPhone or a smart watch; it would be part of your identity alerting the related technologies you worked with to recognize and adopt to you.  A scenario might be where your iPhone would tell your car you were the driver, allow keyless start, adjust the seats, mirrors, internal temperature, entertainment, and communications technology to your specific needs as soon as you approached the driver’s door.   Upon arriving at work, your office would begin to adjust similarly to your arrival before you even got there, firing up your PC, adjusting the local temperature, and even playing the background music you liked (perhaps from the same point as your car left off). 

    After work, your home would adjust the lights, music, and begin to heat your meal.  While you were away, your Roomba-like vacuum would have cleaned your floors and your wash would have been started and completed in a window when power was at its cheapest.  Lights and air conditioning would follow you around the home conserving electricity and making sure you weren’t paying for anything you weren’t actually using. 

    When you sat down in the living room or den, your time shifted programs, movies, pictures or movies would be made available to you simply and easily through one remote which might actually be your iPhone or Smart Watch.  Everything you like, would line up for you and even programs you didn’t know about preselected in a Tivo like fashion so you could what you wanted when you wanted.  When you went to bed, the program would retain state and you could either pick it up from the bedroom or continue watching it at some later date.  

    On vacation, you could take your programming with you or watch it remotely from your vacation spot (or not depending on what you want on vacation).  You could look in on your home with security cameras both inside and out discreetly reporting on its safety and sanctity real time.  Your hotel room would adjust to you, much as your home did and perhaps even the room color would change to one more appealing to your taste. 

    This would all happen without your having to read any instructions, write any code, or manually integrate any products.   We are still a long way from this vision, but we are getting closer.

    Products that approach this ideal

    Apple iPhone, Microsoft Surface:  Both of these offerings get rid of menus for the most part.   They connect people to the things they want to do and are connected to back end services that transparently update the devices for additional features and capabilities and are potentially self repairing.   As devices to interact with the digital home, they are currently unmatched but well short of potential.  Surface is arguably the most amazing thing out of Microsoft in years and the iPhone has already achieved fame unmatched in its class.

    Sonos:  If you want your music seamlessly sent to any room in your house, Sonos is the product that does that the best.  With an easy interface and using Mesh wireless technology (but limited to audio only), this is an affordable way to bring music into your home. 

    Kaleidescape:   If you have an unlimited budget, Kaleidescape is what George Lucas uses to move music and movies around his home.  This is shared with a number of very wealthy people who swear by this distributed media solution.  If you ever get a chance to see a system, take it, it will amaze you.  If they could make this affordable. it could own the segment. Though incredibly expensive, it is amazing.

    HP MediaSmart TV:  Anticipating a time when TVs can go directly to the web and get information, this TV wirelessly connects to a variety of media sources and can bring both video and audio over a network or wirelessly to the TV wherever it is. 

    Insteon:  The most advanced of the home automation technologies in terms of redundancies and reliability.  

    Windows Home Server: Not yet in the market, this product based on Microsoft’s industrial grade server platform, can become the repository for all of your audio and video stuff and serve it up where ever you go.   With third party applications, it is expected to become the brain of the connected home at some point. 

    Pinnacle PCTV To Go, Slingbox:  Can take your TV programming and other media and allow it to follow you around the home or to a remote location like a hotel, friend’s house, or connected distant relative.   In some cases, you can even watch or listen to it on your phone.

    Tivo:  The gold standard in PVRs, soon to be launching a vastly less expensive HD unit, has TiVo ToGo (which unfortunately doesn’t work with the HD units), which also allows for media portability but doesn’t require a network connection so you can watch your programs on your PC on the plane. 

    Omnifi Networked Car Audio:  Unfortunately now out of business, this company had the only car stereo which would automatically download from your network programming you could then watch or listen to in your car.  

    Wrapping Up

    While each of these products has a lot of promise, the reality is collectively they are just too complex for the average person to use and, in terms of cost, outside of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates few folks cold afford to buy all the parts to make a complete solution.  

    No wonder consumers are confused, the best offerings don’t talk to each other, are often way out of their price range, and collectively so complex that you’d need a degree in engineering to both understand and use them.  Microsoft has the breadth but not the focus, Apple the skills but not the breadth, Sony the capability but not the will, and we are left waiting for the one company which can pull this all together and create an iPhone like moment that could transform this space. 

    The vendor that figures this all out will own this segment, until then we’ll have to put this stuff together ourselves.  If you want to see how well that works out you should spin by my house, but don’t ask my wife. She is still trying to figure out how to turn the TV on since my last upgrade.

    Rob Enderle is one of the last Inquiry Analysts.  Inquiry Analysts are paid to stay up to date on current events and identify trends and either explain the trends or make suggestions, tactical and strategic, on how to best take advantage of them.  Currently he provides his services to most of the major technology and media companies.