Home automation is like (and worse than) the portable music player industry before iPod

Why do I say that? To understand what I’m driving at, let’s compare and take a look at the portable music player industry before the iPod.

In 1979, Sony started selling Walkman that took off globally. It instilled the idea that music should be portable. Before we know it, it evolved into Discman, launched in 1984 and widely adopted by late 1990s. This is followed by MiniDisc, launched in 1992 but did not really take off due to the introduction of MP3 players. Well, at least we are carrying more songs with smaller devices as we progress.

Way before the introduction of MP3 players, industry fragmentation had already happened. There were tons of brands selling and infringing the brand Walkman. In the pre-iPod era, the MP3 player industry didn’t had a single enterprise that could hold large enough market share to be able to influence the industry’s direction. Music was being consumed in so many different ways, both legally and illegally. The same applies to digital rights management. The way users interact with their MP3 players most of the time was cumbersome, and no one was doing it really intuitively before the iPod. But at least, all the devices could play a common format: MP3

Let’s take a look at home automation industry. The first “wired” home was built by American hobbyists somewhere in 1960s. With the invention of microcontrollers, it started to rise to prominence in 1990s, probably due to the sci-fi movies featuring futuristic homes that respond to voice commands. However, it didn’t really take off. It remained as projects only to the rich and hobbyists.

Luckily, at least a few communication standards resulted out of the slight rise of prominence. X10, UPB, Z-Wave and ZigBee (and of course many others) were conceived from as early as 1970s to 2005. Besides these fragmented standards, the market was also fragmented with brands that focus on DIY hobbyist such as Insteon, to those that focus on professional implementation like Control4.

With the advancement and cost reduction of touchscreen technologies in late 2000s, the market became even more fragmented. This is especially evident in CES 2013. Even though 2013 is so-called the year of home automation, technology and standard has caught up with the vision of a truely connected home, you still see tons of silos products such as Belkin’s WeMo, Nest thermostat, Ivee Sleek, each having its own app, each claiming to automate part of your home. Personally, I don’t think it make sense to open multiple apps to control multiple aspects of your home. Even with more established industry standards like Z-Wave and ZigBee, there are still players trying to come up with their proprietary ways of communicating with a handful of devices.

The big boys (Google, Microsoft or Apple) need to step in and take the home automation industry by storm, in order for consumers to enjoy more affordable, intuitive and unified home automation products and experience. Hopefully, other than the big boys, there is a “Steve Job” of home automation industry, somewhere out there who can transform home automation, the same way the portable music player industry was revolutionized.




One Reply to “Home automation is like (and worse than) the portable music player industry before iPod”

  1. Home Automation is sold as a “solve all your problems” solution, when in fact I’ve come across more projects where the end user is totally frustrated. It is a highly specialised field and too often not installed or indeed designed correctly. There’s lots of third party equipment with differing protocols and lots of things that can and do go wrong. A universal operating system is what is required and a common ground for all manufacturers to operate from. Only then will it become universally adopted and in the mainstream. Only then will it be for everyone. I reckon that day will come and hopefully we will still need a designer and installer to roll it out.


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