Home, Sweet Home Automation

When you put more than 100 000 professionals and marketers together for the annual Consumer Electronics Show, the convergence of telecommunications and consumer electronics can show itself in unusual ways. Home automation turns out to be one example.

Home automation is already an unusual topics of discussion here. Televisions, cellphones, even automobiles, yes. Home entertainment, most definitely yes. But thermostat controllers, Zigbee, and home alarm systems... well, most people will go the whole show without hearing about them.

And there are reasons for that. For the homeowner, automation is expensive, hard to install, and too hard to use. For system manufacturers, thereâ''s no killer application driving the market. Thatâ''s not just my opinion, itâ''s that of industry leaders, as offered during an unusual technical panel session held in a far corner of the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Yet, thereâ''s a big market out there, and thereâ''s room for it to grow considerably. According to Paul Dawes, CEO of iControl Networks Inc., 23 percent of all North American homes have a monitored security system. That is, homes that pay a monthly fee to a company like ADT or Brinks or, increasingly, to their telephone or cable provider. Those fees add up to $7 billion in recurring annual revenue, Dawes says. And naturally, he and the rest of the industry look hungrily upon the other 77 percent of homes.

Dawes agrees thereâ''s no killer app, but he and his fellow panelists see two other areas along with security that will drive the home automation market. The first is energy savings. In an automated home, windows will report themselves open, saving heat in the winter and A/C in the summer. Lights will shut themselves off when motion detectors report that no one is home.

The other point to automating a home is entertainment. When every appliance and device can communicate with every other one, a single remote can control all of them.

iControlâ''s corner of the markets consists of software that gives home systems the ability to communicate with PDAs, laptops, and cellphones. So when your kid comes home from school and unlocks the front door, a text message is sent. A camera can be set to take a picture if a car drives up to the house, and the picture, or again a text message, is sent.

iControlâ''s software costs less than $100 and comes in the form of a device that attaches to a home network. The software is compatible with both GEâ''s and Honeywellâ''s security systems, which together currently hold more than 80 percent of the North American market. That duopoly may not hold much longer, though.

â''Weâ''re seeing huge demand right now from broadband operators to get into this space,â'' says Dawes. â''Security market is growing at 6 or 7 percent a year. Itâ''s more profitable than telephony. Either by partnering with someone like ADT in offering a bundled service or by doing it themselves. Time-Warner, for example, is doing it themselves. Theyâ''ve got for divisions launched doing security.

That brings to mind some ways for products like iControlâ''s to move beyond securityâ''for example, to controlling the home entertainment systems that are already connected to a set-top box or DVR. Dawes says heâ''s already working on it, as well as communicating with thermostats. Today, you can set your air conditioning to kick on at 6:00pm every weekday, but what if you often work late? Just send it a text message.

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