Are New Mass-Market Home Automation Systems a Threat?
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Are New Mass-Market Home Automation Systems a Threat?

Nick McLain
Mar 26, 2013

home automation tablet controlHome automation, a staple in the CEDIA channel for years, looks like it’s becoming mainstream, with some big names entering the fray.

For example, there is Lowe’s DIY home management system, Iris, which debuted last summer. They plan to offer it in all Lowe’s stores by the end of 2013. While it began as a $299 “starter” kit, Lowe’s increased its offerings, showing off some new home networking products at CES in January.
   
Or take AT&T’s Digital Life service, a wireless-based home security and automation system, with elements from various companies such as Cisco. It is launching in eight additional cities this month, and potentially more than 50 other cities by the start of 2014.

We haven’t even gotten to Comcast’s XFINITY Home, Verizon’s FiOs, Vivint, or more specialized offerings like Raspberry Pi.

What has enabled this recent mass-market trend? And does it threaten the CEDIA channel?

The answer to the first question, according to Rich Green, CEDIA Technology Council chair, is the introduction of new technologies. “Infrastructure technologies always drive new markets,” he says. “In this case, it is mobile apps, ZigBee, Z-Wave, NFC [near field communication], WiFi, 3G, 4G LTE, cheap silicon, web apps, and web and app APIs [application programming interfaces] — they all play a role.”

So, are these products a danger to our channel? The integrators, manufacturers and industry experts I talked to don’t believe they are.

The big players in high-end automation manufacturing, such as Control4, Savant and Crestron, actually see these new mass-market offerings as an opportunity, as the advertising and marketing power of these big companies spreads general awareness of the existence of home automation products.

“If you look at it, we’re all barely scratching the surface of awareness in the market [for home automation],” Jim Carroll, Savant Systems executive VP of corporate strategy, says. “It’s barely getting to 5 to 10 percent of the market. So I look at these ads from [Verizon] FiOs, ADT [Pulse] and Comcast [XFINITY], and I look at it as a ‘rising tide’ type of event. What these companies are spending in marketing dollars dwarfs anything that CEDIA-specific manufacturers and integrators spend collectively. I see this as a great marketing effort that we’re all going to benefit from.”

Blake Jackson, vice president of AMX residential, agrees that the “rising tide” effect could benefit the custom market if mass-market consumers decide to upgrade beyond entry level. “While AMX solutions are developed for the client who demands the highest levels of performance, industrial design, and ease of use, many customers are enjoying smaller, less sophisticated solutions,” Jackson says. “We like to think of them as future AMX customers.”

Delia Hansen, Crestron’s marketing solutions manager for the residential market, believes the systems offered by companies like theirs represent the luxury end of the market. “Market saturation is the natural progression of any product, and technology is no stranger to that,” she says. “But just as fashionable watches, cars and fine cigars still retain a premium place in the market, Crestron will continue to maintain a premium place in the home automation market.”

The idea that the mass-market products and CEDIA members like Crestron and Savant are operating in different sandboxes dovetails with what some of the big retailers are saying about their own products. Kevin Meagher, Lowe’s vice president of smart home, seemed to imply in a 2012 article that they weren’t gunning for the CEDIA market.

Along with offering products with better integration, customization and overall functionality, Mike Maniscalco, vice president of technology for CEDIA member Ihiji, thinks that CEDIA members differentiate themselves with personalized, uber-responsive customer service. “People come to us because we’re providing a level of service that you can’t get from [the big box stores],” he says. “We need to emphasize our superior support and ongoing service.”

Michael Heiss, who oversees CEDIA’s Discovery Action Team and is a technology strategist and journalist, sees it the same way, believing that even if commoditization of home automation products brings down the prices on hardware, the expertise of CEDIA members will still be a differentiator and a way to generate revenue. “If we don’t cave on labor costs and extract value for what we do, that’s how you survive and insulate yourself,” he says. “What is it that we do? We plan, install and service. Let’s extract value from that.”

Tom Kerber, Parks Associates director of research for home controls and energy, says regardless of what mass market options are out there, the CEDIA integrator will shine through. “It’s night and day, the solutions CEDIA [members] bring are so superior to what’s being offered [by the big retailers] that they can’t compete,” he says. “No matter what happens tech-wise, the CEDIA channel will still be able to make the experience more personalized and done just how the individual consumer wants it.”




About Nick McLain
Nick McLain is CEDIA's Technical Journalist. He can be reached at nmclain@cedia.org.

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