In this age of innovation, it’s a little strange being in your mid-life. With the pace at which technology is changing, my parents can barely keep up, while those younger than “us” missed out on the origins of the computer, internet, and smartphone.
It’s strange, when I consider that schools’ approach to teaching technology today starts, disappointingly, with simply ensuring kids have tablets; claiming that everyone needs equal exposure to tech in order to experience it and not be disadvantaged. The approach to teaching technology today is access to it without the hacking that we had to do 20 years ago to even make it work. Kids are growing up and working in tech with no hands-on experience with how a computer actually works, the role of an operating system, understanding of memory vs. storage, the implication of processors, what’s involved in making the internet work, nor how to make a website from scratch.
I share that thought, not in criticism of young people but rather mere observation that people today are exposed to tech by way of Minecraft and an app that teaches programming; whereas those my age, who grew up with tech, essentially had to create those things to experience them.
What does that have to do with Home Automation?
While the computer is ubiquitous in society today, in the eighties and nineties, as the personal computer grew up from being a tech enthusiast’s hobby to a more mainstream home appliance, the world was separated between those who embraced Apple’s products and those who embraced “the PC.” Of course, most everyone today is aware of that, but precious few really experienced it firsthand. While people today still favor Apple or the alternatives, today’s preference is much more driven by marketing (brand) than functionality and capability. After all, to most, a smartphone is a smartphone and few appreciate the significant distinctions between an iPhone and one powered by Android.
Decades ago, the distinction was as great as night and day as there were in fact certain things computer owners could only do with a PC, or a Mac. That distinction was what drove forward society’s adoption of the computer.
A Brief History of PC vs. Mac
Before Dell put a PC in every home (yes, Dell was essentially the Ford of computing), customers chose between the defined and developed experience of a Mac and the fairly custom, made-to-order PC (Computer geeks, bear with me, I realize the old Macs were also custom built… go with me to the time after that). One of the first computers in our home was a custom built PC that a neighbor had pieced together after we determined the components and software we wanted.
The distinction for consumers was that Apple’s products were more packaged: standard hardware, operating system, and software in all Apple products; or 3rd party solutions designed specifically for Apple. As such, because of the software made for them, the “standards” resulted in Apples becoming known as graphic designers’ computers with limited gaming options. Those were the programs most available.
On the other hand the PC, really still custom built even today, had only one standard: the operating system – Windows. PC owners could easily customize every piece of hardware resulting in more memory or storage, better graphics, faster processing, and so forth, depending on what one wanted and was willing to spend. Software too was more diverse as anyone could create anything for Windows; without adhering to a standard hardware AND operating system, which required dedication to program for Apple, programmers had much larger market available when only the OS needed to be in place.
Interestingly, unbeknownst to many, iOS and Android are living out the evolution through which Apple went with Microsoft in the smartphone industry. Apple and Microsoft are now Apple and Google.
What that distinction did though was foster adoption through BOTH experiences:
- Apple made it easy for designers and less sophisticated customers to get comfortable with a computer
- PC fostered the hackers, early adopters, and greater diversity of programmers who, in creating a greater variety of hardware and software, commoditized the computer while bringing the geeks into the business world.
The commoditization of computer parts and software brought more into the market AND reduced the cost, drastically so, to the point that there was a computer in every home.
Now, I’m oversimplifying what happened but generally speaking, that’s what transpired and that’s how the computer became a permanent fixture in our homes and offices. One business model, driving the hip and unsavvy, through a complete package, at a cost, while the other business model enabled the geeks and businesses at lower costs, by standardizing only the framework, with unlimited possibilities.
20 years later as I’ve mentioned, Apple spurned the same arms race for our attention with the launch of a completely standardized iOS on a smartphone, to compete with Palm and Blackberry, and when Microsoft fumbled the ball, Google picked it up, standardizing an OS but not the programs or hardware, on Android devices.
What PC vs. Mac Means to Home Automation
|I’m a PC. Years ago, Apple went after the PC market with a commercial showing a cool looking guy talking about how great it was to be Apple, next to someone meant to less appealingly, represent “PC.” And while the commercials worked well for Apple, just as many PC enthusiasts watched them and thought, yep, I’m still a PC.
I’m also an Android. PC and Android essentially means I prefer to customize, hack, and personalize more than is possible with Apple products BUT that’s only possible because of the standard OS. I can change my phone, select from far more software (as of July, there were 100,000 more Android Apps than iPhone), all less expensively, than I can with an iPhone.
As a hacker, I’m an early adopter of home automation. I’m enamored with the idea of my home reacting to me; to doors opening, my radio starting, and lights setting the mood, at my command. I tried QR codes as soon as they came out, NFC chips sit in my closet, and old Z-wave (home automation) devices gather dust in my garage.
Home automation tech, you see, only recently started to figure out that the demand for Internet of Things (IoT – the connectedness of everything from our refrigerator to our garage door) signaled a tipping point for home automation.
Unfortunately, home automation has largely adhered to the cult of Mac.
Unsuccessfully mind you, but home automation devices and technology have either tried to completely control the entire experience you have (standardizing everything to a proprietary brand as did Apple) OR it’s developed chaotically like the wild west days of the early computer, trying to build all manner of technology and software WITHOUT the standard of the operating system that made the PC accessible. As a result, home automation today is largely either the early days of Mac, when you had to spend thousands of dollars to get a limited but completely compatible set of experiences, most of which would remain incompatible with other tech and/or end-of-life and go unsupported OR a hackers game, as tech enthusiasts cobble together Raspberry Pis, tablets, various operating systems, switches, modules, and task rules to engineer an automated home. No PC.
Well, not quite…
The challenge for the home automation industry, in its infancy, was a lack of meaningful Venture Capital (necessary to fund establishing a market standard) and the rise of the Lean Startup principles (favoring minimum viable iteration), at a time when Apple’s dominance of the Smartphone market, made it clear that everyone should try to be Apple. Companies, rather than tackling the long play market opportunity, focused on Apple’s branded, turnkey solution hoping that would enable them to quickly adopt some customers and establish a business.
The problem with that is that the lack of a player focused on the larger market opportunity, results in what we have today: many many many branded solutions and little interoperability – No way for everyone to participate in home automation at lower prices by way of a standard of interoperability that ensures that people have the PC, er… automated home, on their terms.
Consider though that the evolution of the home automation industry, as such, makes some sense. After all, we can’t have a standard operating system without a hardware foundation. We wouldn’t have Windows without everyone wanting a computer. In home automation, what is it that we all want??
Enter the contenders: Piper and Amazon
Yes, Amazon! And… Piper?
Let’s start with the later. One thing most people have or want in their home, in some capacity, a foundation on which to automate, is video monitoring and security. Don’t we have a standard in our TVs and laptops? No, we don’t automate from such technology; home security though, is automated. Thus Piper, a wireless, home security camera, easy to use, inexpensive, and with an operating system (and mobile app) that holds the promise of interoperability with anything else.
I was turned on to it a few weeks ago and fell in love with the fact that my camera gives me the ability to watch, and talk, with my kids while I’m at work. At it’s core, it’s a replacement to those monthly cost home monitoring services but the simple fact is that it’s an always on, wireless camera with an operating system meaning that it can secure your home and more. It works with many other devices that control lights, power, and sensors and while still limited in that interoperability, the company is relatively new and expectedly developing such that it will work with much more.
Our other contender, I think, is Amazon. While Google and Apple evolve from smartphones and streaming TV hardware to driverless cars, intent on owning you on the road, Amazon made a brilliant move, emerging from their struggled attempt at putting a tablet in your hands, and launched Amazon Echo. A home appliance finally, capably putting artificial intelligence in your home.
“The Echo may be the closest thing we’ll have to a Star Trek computer at home.”
I should point out, I don’t have an Echo (maybe they’ll send me one for writing this *hint hint*) so Amazon’s device serves to establish my point rather than focusing on a specific product. What will everyone have in their home? A means of talking to something to get the weather, a traffic update, add something to their grocery list, or turn on the lights. Our foundation for home automation may well also be established by the device to which you talk and control devices with a command.
PCs. We’re getting there in home automation. A foundation on which an operating system enables hardware engineers and software programmers to iterate whatever they might want, to help bring to the market not just the simple but constrained experience of singularly branded, standardized solution, but the flexibility that most of us want to create the experience we prefer, with the confidence that it works together and will remain forever supported.