7 for 7: Home Controls on the Apple Tablet

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This is the sixth in a series of 7 posts in the 7 days prior to Apple’s January 27 media event in which I explore various possibilities for an Apple Tablet and other potential announcements.

The unlikeliest of all the features I’m hoping for in an Apple Tablet–home controls–made it to the penultimate post in the 7 for 7 series (tomorrow’s article will be a recap and will address some broader concepts about Apple’s mobile strategy). Unlikeliest? I’ve seen very little in the way of rumors or speculation that Apple is intending to include support for home controls in the iSlate, iPad, Canvas or you-name-it tablet device now widely expected to be unveiled on Wednesday. Yet its one of those out-of-the-blue kinds of things that would allow Apple to both surprise analysts and pundits alike, and to totally disrupt the current home controls market while opening it to the masses. So allow me to dream for a day before the reality of Wednesday’s announcement brings me back to earth.

First off, we should probably define home controls, which is also known as home automation. Home controls is the automation of many household appliances and services, such as lighting, temperature, audio-video, and security, among other systems. These systems are integrated into one central control unit, which can then be accessed by multiple devices on the network. Home controls give residents the ability to turn lights on and off, increase or decrease your thermostat’s temperature control, or select options on your home entertainment center.

Home control systems have become commonplace in luxury homes because of the convenience they offer, but are out of reach for most homeowners because of cost. Companies like Savant and HomeLogic offer an impressive array of control devices, from wall-mounted and wireless touchpads to sleek system controllers and even digital furniture. Control4 has successfully attempted to make full-scale home automation systems more affordable, but their system can also be a bit pricey as it requires many custom components. My brother has a Control4 system in his new home, and I love how it makes distributing audio a breeze. All three companies, and others, offer home controls iPhone apps, as central servers can often be accessed via Wi-Fi.

Devices in your home must also be controllable, which means they typically need some form of actuator. The high-end companies offer their own solutions, but there are industry standards for communications like X10 which drive down the cost. Any device, like a light switch, can be retrofitted to support X10, and communication signals are sent over existing electrical lines. Yet such controls have yet to hit the mainstream, in part because they are somewhat technically advanced and still considered a luxury. However, as energy consumption becomes more important and the cost of home control equipment goes down, more and more people will consider home controls as a serious option, especially if government incentives that support such devices gain traction.

Apple and its developers have ventured into various aspects of home controls. Apple offers its Remote app in the iTunes App Store to control iTunes, Apple TV, and Airport Express audio. The aforementioned home controls companies have released iPhone apps as part of their solutions. And there are a few Mac-based home controls systems on the market, including Shion and Perceptive Automation’s Indigo, which communicate with X10 and other automation standards and devices.

The reasons I want to see and think there is an outside chance that home controls a part of the tablet announcement are: 1) positioning of the device as a new kind of home computer or room-to-room mobile; 2) the huge market opportunity that home controls represents; and 3) my own imagination about what Apple could do with a multi-touch interface that controls my home’s functions. But the reasons not to expect it are perhaps stronger: 1) this positioning competes too much with a larger opportunity to be a digital media device; 2) a successful home controls strategy would require too heavy a reliance on a now fragmented market for hardware peripherals; and 3) frankly, Apple has too many other ways to excite and engage customers via multi-touch interface.

I’d really, really like to believe that Apple will aggressively address the home controls market, starting with the launch of the tablet on the 27th, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. For some entrepreneurs out there, however, I think the tablet represents a new opportunity to develop new, or better commercialize existing home controls solutions using Mac hardware for control center and user interface functions, x10 and related hardware for device control, and system integration services to pull it all together. If Apple doesn’t do it, someone should.

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