Why Our Homes Remain Dumb

27 Jan, 2014 | TechTdp

Jacob Kastrenakes has a piece over at The Verge called The Dumb State of the Smart Home. It talks about how current 'smart' devices aren't capable of interconnectivity, largely because they don't talk the same language.

I know a bit about this subject, because I put together some basic home automation myself. Nothing too fancy, mine just controls a lamp, on a timer. Mine's a bit smarter than the units you plug into the wall because it changes based on sunset as to when it comes on in the evening, and only comes on if sunrise is after a certain time (i.e. it's dark enough for me to need light) in the mornings.

To do it, I use a standard set of remote control plug sockets, and a USB dongle from a company called Telldus. I use the bottom of their range, which only talks one-way, it doesn't receive data back. My application, as I said, is very basic.

The Internet of Things seems to have become a growing buzz-phrase this year, after talk of it forever. If it sounds like it's on the verge of breaking into the mainstream, I can tell you now, it won't.

Interoperability is certainly one reason. You see, my dongle transmits on 433.92 MHz. As you can see, that makes it compatible with a range of protocols, including X10, the grandfather of them all, having been around since 1975. Z-Wave and ZigBee use 868 Mhz (in Europe), which is another popular frequency.

Despite the such protocol ubiquity, my dongle cost around £50, for bi-directional ones you're looking at more like £100. Plus you need a computer to run it off. Even if you opt for a Raspberry Pi, you're looking at another £50 (once you factor in SD card, etc). So we're talking at least £100, before we get to the sockets.  And that's cheap.

An X10 plug, just one, will set you back over £20. Add another £50-70 for a controller and you can see it gets expensive fast. Z-Wave is even more expensive, with the controller alone costing well over £100. ZigBee, assuming you can find it, seems to be around the same price.

So it's a big investment. How do you choose a protocol, because aside from X10, Z-Wave, ZigBee and the various other 433 Mhz ones, there's Lightwave RF, Insteon and Belkin's WeMo? Then you have companies like Ninja Blocks trying to make this all easier. These won't all make it, only one or two will become ubiquitous. Where do you place your bet (knowing your kit may become obsolete and you'll have to buy it all again)?

The annoying part is they don't have to be this expensive. You can pick up a transmitter for any of these frequencies for a few quid. Some people have even managed to get their Raspberry Pis working with the cheap modules (my last attempt didn't work out so well).

So, at the moment, the kit is a rip-off, it doesn't interconnect with other protocols, and no one protocol is out in front. That's why no one is looking at home automation taking off this year, and why the Internet of Things is also doomed (even if those devices tend to be more wi-fi related). Just look at how pricey the Nest controller is, and it's not even available anywhere but the US yet.

So no, now is not the time to be going smarter, homes are going to remain dumb for a while to come, at least until this mess gets sorted out and the prices drop drastically.