Tales from the world of Information Technology
Your home is getting a lot smarter

Incase it's escaped your attention, we currently stand, like cavemen beholding a monolyth, at the dawn of the "Smart Home"

The "internet of things" is growing around us and absorbing every object we use in day to day life.

Little miniature computers are being inserted into things like lights, thermostats, doors, fans, curtains, cameras, TVs, washing machines, ovens, microwaves.... everything.

It's like the 1980s when we inserted digital clocks into everything, except this is both better and worse.

How is it better?

Even at this early stage, the immediate benefits are obvious. You have the convenience of managing all your devices from one place. That place can be your home, or anywhere else in the world with internet access.

You can teach your smart home to automate tasks, integrate and maximise your home security, improve the performance and lifetime of your appliances, save energy and get insights into the management of your home.

Who's doing this?

As with any new development we have big players trying to do what they do with the new technology, and a bunch of new players who see an opportunity to innovate.

The big players are big tech. Google, Amazon, Apple and Samsung. Still relatively new themselves, but old enough to have settled on a business plan that works.

How are they going?

Big data wants to know you better
Big data companies already collect as much information they can get their hands on about you, then feed it into algorythms designed to work out the best way to market to you.

Collecting and exploiting data is the bread and butter of these companies, and the reason for the products they "give" us.

While they're leading the way in development of smart devices, and have agreed to sets of standards to let them all talk to each other, their focus on running every bit of your information through their systems has opened up a market for smart homes that are privacy minded.

Who needs Amazon knowing how many times you visit the bathroom every night, right?

Are there any better options?

Names like OpenHab, Home Assistant, and Domoticz are open source and community driven systems, meaning while the big names are fundamentally about marketing to you better, these ones are about improving the functionality of your smart home.

Raspberry Pi 3
The Raspberry Pi is a small cheap computer originally designed for education settings but being utilised in millions of different ways by people around the world. You can get one for around AU$45

They also welcome user contributions, so chances are someone else has tried to work with the device you're trying to incorporate, and software developers around the world have had a look at making it work.

These open source Smart Home hubs can all be run on most computer platforms, and are ideal on a small stand alone computer (e.g: a cheap Raspberry Pi) dedicated to the purpose.

The obvious immediate benefit of using one of these systems is that your smart home is run from your own mini cloud, inside your house, rather than being reliant on a connected internet, and a bunch of corporations processing (and recording) the functions for you.

Well that makes the choice easy, right?

If only. Although the playing field is quickly evolving, many smart product manufacturers are still setting up their devices to work exclusively with the major players. To be fair, it does make more financial sense for them.

But if you're not to be put off by getting your hands dirty, most devices can be modified to work on more systems. From what I'm seeing it involves opening up the device and installing a different firmware. Then plug in and off you go.

At worst, there's an emerging market for "jailbreaked" smart devices and they will become more common.

Tell me more about this

Control your home environment from any device
Bringing all your smart devices together on a Smart Home hub enables them to work together, and gives you control through a single interface.

Right now you can buy individual smart devices and install the app on your phone for local or remote networked control.

This leads to you having a bunch of apps on your phone to control all your different devices independently. They'll talk well one on one with your phone, and extremely well reporting everything back to base, but you need to do more to make them talk to each other, or be able to use their functions for automation.

The point of a smart home is to bring all these devices together to be controlled from a central hub. And then the Smart Home hub in turn provides control of these devices through tailored panels you can access from your phone, tablet, computer, tv remote, etc.

You can also set up conditional instructions that control your devices automatically.

For example:

On weeknights at 9.30pm your lights will gradually start dimming and giving off a warmer glow, preparing you for bedtime at 10pm(ish) when the TV goes off. That's when the air system sets to a lower setting, the main lights in the house switch off, and the porch light is switched off, unless someone from the family isn't home yet, in which case it will stay on until they get inside.

As the night goes on, if anyone gets up for a bathroom run, soft floor level lights will come on to illuminate the way and save bumping into things.

Then in the morning, the Smart Home will turn up the lights, or open the curtains for each family member as they need to get up (some will want music playing, some wont, the house will know). The Smart Home will keep an eye on the weather, traffic and transport conditions and let you know how to dress and when you should leave to get where you're going on time.

And that's just one simple scenario. The possibilities are limitless though.

How important is making the right choice for a Smart Home hub now?

Right now, if you remember the Apple vs Windows, or iPhone vs Android battles, we're at a similar place with Smart Home hubs.

Some may remember further back to the VHS vs Beta days, and how they never really merged.

Fortunately, as time has gone on, businesses have seen value in devising standards and extending them with their own proprietary functions, rather than locking themselves into a single technology that locks competitors out.

So with that in mind, indications are that cross platform functionality will be prevalent and choosing a different Smart Home hub in the future won't be impossible.

But on the other side of that, if the one you choose now isn't the one you will stay with forever, it will only ever be the one you had until you got your propper one.

Your Smart Home will get smarter as time goes on, based on your interaction with it, and scrapping everything and starting again will put you back a bit.

What should I do now?

Start paying attention to smart home applications as you notice them in day to day life. Start having a look at how they will cater for you and what your expectations are for how you'll use them.

Get yourself into the mind of looking for a solution for your smart home needs and look at the options available.

Whichever way you end up going, know there will be a lot of support from like minded people around the world and industries will open up around these devices and functions.

Get excited. The future is smart and convenient thanks to a technology it feels like we've waited too long for.

Computer, spell check and publish please.

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