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issue: May 2004 APPLIANCE European Edition

Guest Editorial
Design Considerations of Home Automation

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by Erik Michielsen, senior analyst, Allied Business Intelligence (ABI) Research

What lies behind the front door of homes is changing dramatically and quickly. The much-talked about digital home of tomorrow is increasingly becoming the digital home of today. A number of technologies, including broadband and wireless access and distribution, are finding wholesome hospitality as consumers progressively go digital in pursuit of enhancing their lives and making their days more manageable.

Numerous factors will influence this reorganization, including how well home control engineers adapt product designs to leverage existing home networks.

The shift to mainstream consumer adoption is pushing control point consolidation in the home. This is happening in home electronics and will progress into more holistic control networks tied around residential gateway functionality. As this occurs, standards, interoperability, and decreasing cost must be considered. Therefore, home control engineers need to better understand how existing home networks can eliminate control points and, more importantly, reduce development and design costs and timelines.

While home-networking connectivity is only in its infancy, as it evolves, the connectivity will encompass slower-bandwidth applications such as home automation lighting control and to high-bandwidth applications such as Ultra-Wide Band (UWB) video stream transfer for HDTV signals.

As home automation technology and control systems improve, device connectivity and interoperability will be increasingly key components. The development of technologies such as Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) that facilitate the integration of subsystems and devices will provide a bridge among the many proprietary technologies that exist. Further, organizations such as the Digital Home Working Group that are pushing interoperability and connectivity in U.S. homes will only further the interests of engineering design staffs.

In short, there will be a wide menu of configurations and network design options that companies can supply and consumers can demand. If there is a limiting factor, it will be that larger company involvement, say, from Microsoft or Intel, will force compatibility unless companies elect to provide higher-cost customized solutions for niche market segments.

Once compatibility standards are established, service providers will move into bundled home control access that connects the home ecosystem beyond the PC and TV. At the center of this opportunity is the broadband service provider, which may charge a fee and/or distribute exclusive services via a broadband residential gateway. Additionally, networked appliances and integrated home control systems represent an immense potential opportunity in the home, as access points translate into enhanced customer service relationships.

Home automation and connectivity is not about letting in a delivery person while away or about turning on lights when on vacation. It is about managing the ecosystem. What is happening to the home now is what happened to the enterprise in the 1990s. Supply-chain management, enterprise resource planning, and customer relationship management were large initiatives that cut costs, enabled efficiencies, and drove revenue from both an internal and external perspective. The home is not that much different.

Now that networking technologies and standards are connecting the various areas of the home, this is beginning to become a reality. The home is an enterprise and companies such as IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and Cisco see it as such.

This is a positive step toward addressing the design considerations with networked home automation. Jay Heuer, director, Whirlpool Connected Home says that with expanding consumer expectations for appliances, the appliance industry is including new value propositions, technologies, and approaches into their product designs. "These new capabilities will have to be integrated into existing appliance designs, leveraging insights, and partners from outside the appliance industry," he says. "New design paradigms and new components will find their way into the appliances of tomorrow. Relentless competition combined with ever-accelerating technology advances will give rise to exciting new challenges for the appliance engineer."

This means, though, that each engineer must be ready to take on the challenges and take responsibility for understanding the impact of what a networked home will have on the design of devices - whether it is standards, interoperability, or another issue - and work to achieve success with networked home automation. It will be paramount to the success of networked home automation and the appliances designed for it.

About the Author
Erik Michielsen is a senior analyst at ABI Research in New York, U.S. He holds an MBA in Marketing and Strategy from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business in Raleigh-Durham, NC, U.S. and a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI, U.S.

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