Friday, June 22, 2007

The home management market – is the 'in search' for the killer application dead?

The market for integrated home systems and controls has always been seen as attractive but I’m coming to the opinion that it’s being held back by a fruitless search to find the holy grail of the sector, a ‘killer’ application that will finally define the market.

Less glamorous though it may seem, I’m increasingly convinced that route to realising the potential of the market is through simple, measured steps.

This view is supported by history. Remember those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it! Take the case of electricity. Modern life would be unthinkable without it, yet when electricity came along it was received initially with a muted response.

It was expensive, not least because the size of the infrastructure needed and the investment required to pipe electricity to properties made it difficult to roll out. Even where businesses were willing to make the investment, customers questioned the value. Consumers had gas and paraffin for light and generally went to bed when it got dark so they perceived it to be of little value.

So what made electricity an essential utility in every home wasn’t the fact that electricity could produce light? The market took off when companies like General Electric helped develop a mutually dependent ecosystem based on an increasingly pervasive network, reduced cost of service supply and produced comparatively inexpensive electrical appliances that added value and made an electricity supply desirable to the consumer. It was initially refrigerators, heaters, irons and cookers and later food mixers, air conditioners and entertainment devices that made electricity essential in any home.

The point is that there was no single killer application; it was the availability of a wide range of applications that spurred growth in the whole ecosystem. In this respect the parallels with the growth of broadband are striking as it moves from being an access point to a network of networks to become an essential utility in any property.

Broadband did not appeal to everyone initially when it was only providing faster access to web pages on a PC. It has been growth in the applications and their associated devices - the equivalent of the electricity market’s appliances - and the associated fall in cost of access and the ability to pipe broadband around the property - particularly through wireless LANs - that has driven broadband to reach more homes.

In particular, it has been the ability to use broadband for entertainment applications that has been the real driver to date. Now, home working and e-commerce applications are further building the ecosystem. There is, however, another phase of growth to come with pervasive low-cost broadband - the advent of inexpensive devices that will exploit broadband to deliver convenience, comfort and care in the home. This is the phase in which home management will finally realise its potential.

Internet platforms will provide the key building blocks in the ecosystem needed to enable this new phase of growth. Creating the platform to do this is the difficult bit but it’s what Intamac has devoted itself to, so I’m seeing the impact close at hand. Intamac’s work with partners such as BT, Bell Canada and Cisco Linksys to develop and bundle a new range of innovative and affordable products and services for home suggests that this approach can work and the market is ready.

Using the platform, for example, with BT we have developed a broadband home monitoring service that can be installed by the user with a complete system retailing for under £200. This provides the consumer with new levels of protection in the home and the ability to remotely manage their systems for low monthly fees. It is possible to integrate easily cameras and have pictures sent to mobiles with online video storage capabilities. Companies such as BT and Bell are able to scale up offerings with attractive support packages that generate recurring revenues from a mass market customer base.

Enabled by the platform approach, these products and services are a first step in a huge growth market. Intamac is working to network a wide portfolio of partner products and to help add features that will allow them to be deployed into new and attractive segments such as telecare, and utility and appliance management.

For an infrastructure point of view whilst its clear that web platforms like Intamac’s are being recognised as key node in the new ecosystem it is the advent of low cost wireless networking with technology such as Z-Wave and Zigbee, low-cost IP cameras at under £100 retail, and solutions for remote management of routers that will also drive the market. That’s’ what we’ll need to get to grips with when we all meet at Connections in December

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