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Whether you see Apple’s (s AAPL) tablet the iPad as the catalyst of a digital media revolution, or just another gadget that Steve Jobs wants you to spend your hard-earned cash on, it’s hard to avoid the black hole that is the iPad buzz this week. But beyond possibly affecting the digital consumption of books, magazines, blogs and newspapers, I think the iPad will have an effect on a less obvious market: home energy.
The home energy market is a nascent ecosystem that’s made up of: utilities that are trying get their customers to consume less energy, startups building smart energy software and energy dashboards that will manage energy data in the home and help customers consume less, large manufacturers dabbling in connected appliances, and investors looking for ways to make money (a dose of skepticism here).
If you’re never heard of the market, it’s because from a consumer perspective it really doesn’t exist yet. According to Texas-based consultants KEMA, 68 percent of Americans haven’t heard of the smart grid, and exuberance in the home energy market “should be tempered to account for the challenge of engaging large numbers of residential customers.”
The preliminary stage of the market is one reason why the iPad could possibly have such a large effect. As Glen Mella, the President and COO of Control4 — a home automation and energy management startup that created a free iPad app — put it to me in an interview yesterday, think of the millions of people that could suddenly have access to a power display with rich media for home energy management. “We’re excited to embrace the iPad as another way to bring home automation and home energy management to the mainstream,” explained Mella.
The iPad has a real chance of playing a key role in “the digital home,” a long-discussed market where consumers are supposed to use a fourth screen to manage home digital entertainment, security, lighting, and heating and cooling. In recent months home automation players like Control4 have added on energy management as another feature, (see Is Energy Management the Killer App For the Home Automation Market?, GigaOM Pro, subscription required).
But the iPad could offer a few unique characteristics specifically for home energy management in comparison to an energy-specific dashboard gadget — like those made by Tendril, EnergyHub and Control4 (yep they make a gadget too) — mobile interfaces with smaller screens like the iPhone, or a website on a computer. Those advantages include a large screen, the ability for rich media and the fact that the device can do an unlimited amount of other tasks. “People aren’t buying the iPad for energy, but now they have this sleek and capable energy device,” says Mella.
So, say iPad buyers do one day embrace home energy apps like Control4’s on the iPad, it could certainly change the newly forming energy management ecosystem. More specifically, it could cause stand-alone energy devices to stall. To that, Mella says “Sure the iPad could replace some of the sales, but let’s do what the consumer wants.”
Other entrepreneurs that make both energy management software and hardware have similar thoughts. Marco Graziano, CEO of energy management startup Visible Energy, which has an iPhone app for energy management and plans to make a native iPad app, explained to me in an email:
I never thought specialized displays were a good idea for monitoring energy consumption. They don’t have any sex appeal and are too expensive anyway as freebies for utilities to give away. We found that interactivity is really a plus when it gets to visualizing energy consumption and to engaging people in energy awareness. In this respect the iPad is a breakthrough.
Seth Frader-Thompson, CEO of energy management company EnergyHub, which makes both an energy dashboard that has rich media, and is also developing an iPhone app, says:
We think it’s important to offer consumers a choice of how they interact with their home energy management system. That includes dedicated devices like our Dashboard for people who don’t have a multi-purpose “Fourth Screen,” as well as apps for the iPhone and iPad, Android phones and tablets, and other platforms that gain significant market traction. Our key value is really in making software that makes personal energy management easy for consumers, and delivering that software in a way that’s accessible to as many people as possible.
The bottom line is that it’s still early days for these startups, which means that they can pretty easily adapt, change business models, and, say, start pushing more software than hardware, if a dominant energy hardware platform emerges. And if the iPad ever does help the energy management market break out into the mainstream, it will also mean that the energy management market has moved solidly into the domain of the consumer, as opposed to being a product distributed by a utility. That will ultimately mean a lot bigger market and a lot more opportunities for these startups.