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Home Automation Update

One of my most popular posts is a tutorial I wrote two years ago about automating a gas fireplace and I get a lot of questions about home automation, so thought I’d write an update to that tutorial and review some products I’ve bought in the last two years.

My Original Goal

When I originally started seeing all the home automation products that were coming out, my original interest in them was to see what kind of data these devices gathered about their owners and I ended up giving two presentations on this topic at the Strata Conferences in New York and London.  With all that said, for my research I wanted to be able to control the functionality of my home with my phone.  After buying a bunch of devices, I was really disappointed.  At the time, I wasn’t able to automate any lighting because my home was built in the 1920s and none of the light switches had a neutral wire–a requirement for Z-Wave switches.  After we moved to a newer home, and I started automating lights and installing other automation devices, the thing that really frustrated me was the difficulty in getting all the devices to work together.  I had high hopes for IFTTT, (and still do) but at the time, it seemed like it was a half-assed workaround.

I also was very disappointed with the available security systems.  At the time, the choices were pretty much limited to systems which required you to pay rather steep monthly “monitoring fees” to some company and use rather low-tech devices, or half-baked products that did appear promising but seemed to be MVPs at best.

So what changed?  I can answer that in one word: Alexa.

The Biggest Improvement: The Amazon Echo

By far, the biggest and coolest addition that we’ve made to our home automation was the Amazon Echo Dot.  I bought the first Echo dot about a year ago just to try it out and I am so impressed.  Amazon really got it right in terms of functionality.  While the new Echos have a hub integrated into the device, all of them will work with the Wink hub so many of the devices that are controlled by Wink can also be controlled with Alexa, and this is where the really cool stuff happens.  With the Wink-Alexa connection, you can simply ask Alexa to “turn on the fireplace” or “living room lights” or whatever.  Amazon clearly did put a lot of thought into this and Alexa won’t unlock doors, or open the garage door, but it will turn on and off lights and do a wide variety of other things.  The echos also have an intercom feature built into them, so you can just ask Alexa to “drop in” to another room.  My wife had been asking for an intercom for a while and there really weren’t any appealing options.  The Echo nailed that functionality.   All in all, while it is really helpful to be able to control your home from a mobile device, it really seems futuristic to be able to simply speak to a device and have it respond appropriately.

I recently purchased the Echo 2nd Generation, and it too is a really remarkable product.  I’m also so impressed with the voice recognition.  The Echo doesn’t seem to have any problem understanding my kids, one of whom does not always speak clearly.

Interoperability is Key

The final thing which I’ll say about the Amazon Echo that I really like is its interoperability.  IMHO, one of the big shortcomings of a lot of IoT devices is the lack of interoperability which for me is a real turn off.  I totally get that the builders of these devices are doing this to make money and that in their view, the best way to do that is to get you to buy as many of their devices as possible.   However there are many instances where a given company’s ecosystem is good in some areas but sorely lacking in others.  For example, the Ring Doorbells are great, but Nest makes a nicer looking smoke detector.   Which brings me to my next point…

No MVPs Please

When I first started buying home automation devices, I didn’t understand the concept of a minimum viable product or MVP.  If you aren’t familiar with the concept of MVP, let me explain… MVP is a term and technique defined by Steven Blank and Eric Ries used for product development–most commonly software development.  The basic idea is that companies seeking to develop a new product build a product with the minimum set of features and get it in front of customers as soon as possible.  The early adopters are more tolerant of “beta” products and the developers can learn and iterate rapidly to improve the product.  This methodology works extremely well for developing software platforms where rapid iteration is possible and changes can be pushed out to all customers virtually instantaneously.

I’ve come to conclude is that MVPs don’t work quite the same for home automation.  Let me explain… the reason MVPs and the Lean methodology work for software development is the rapid iteration concept.  You build something, try it see if customers like it, tweak it and repeat.  The problem with home automation devices is that once I bolt that smoke detector to the wall, I’m not buying another one.  Ever.  Rapid iteration works when it is possible to rapidly get new versions of the product in front of the customers.  Also, with home automation devices, I think people are less willing to spend money to update home automation devices as opposed to software or even cell phones, because home automation devices are often physically installed in your home, and often the improvements are simply not worth the cost to the end user.  Bottom line, for home automation devices, I’m not interested in being an unpaid beta tester and purchasing a half-baked, poorly tested product.

Ring, Ring

Another suite of products that came out after I wrote the original article was the Ring doorbell.  I first purchased a Ring doorbell, and was reasonably impressed with it.  The concept behind the Ring doorbell is that when someone rings your doorbell, in addition to actually ringing your doorbell, it also records a video, and allows you to speak with the person who is at your door.  In addition to making really great products, Ring has excellent customer service should you have a problem with any of their products. So far, I have 2 Ring doorbells, 1 Ring security camera with solar panel and a range extender.  Getting back to the original theme of the article, one of the things that Ring does well is that it works well with other systems.  It is interoperable with both IFTTT and Wink.  Basically, the Ring devices can be used as motion sensors within Wink and can be used to trigger other events.

What’s Missing?

The one area which I’ve been really disappointed was home security.  When I initially started my journey with home automation, I really wanted a system that worked with my smartphone and didn’t have monthly fees.  I ended up buying the iSmartAlarm, however, after using it for a few months, it was a huge let down.  My wife kept setting it off, we’d never arm it etc. On top of that the siren wasn’t very loud, the app was pretty crummy and it didn’t really work with other ecosystems.  It also took FOREVER for them to release updates and new products and the products they released were more and more security cameras, something which I wasn’t terribly interested in.

I just (as in last week) bought the Nest Security system, and I am hoping that it will be compatibility with Wink and IFTTT in the near future.  I was really impressed with the design and really like the tabs that you can just wave over the hub to arm/disarm the system.  Also the system works with other Nest devices so that when it detects nobody is home, it sends you an alert to arm the system.  I’ll keep you posted…

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