How Google and Apple will smartify your home

The automation revolution starts Thursday; here's what's coming soon to your house.

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The next big culture shift in consumer technology is clearly home automation. Over the next two or three years, a dizzying array of home appliances and devices will connect up with your phone and TV box to make everything "smart" (which, let's face it, is a euphemism for "more fun but also more expensive and complex").

In fact, "home automation" isn't a great name because manual control of household objects is a major benefit. So let's call it "smartification."

As with all mainstream technologies -- including PCs, laptops, mobile phones, tablets and now wearables -- smartification is something that has existed for years as a technical hobby. Now, it's about to become something ubiquitous.

Soon, everybody will be rushing to CostCo, BestBuy and to buy doorbells that connect with your smartphone to show you who's at the door, lights that can turn any color, coffee pots that brew based on the traffic and hundreds of other smart products.

The mainstreaming of this category begins this week -- I'll get to that in a minute. But first let's be clear about what "home automation" is and how it's changing.

The buzzword that's associated with home automation, and about which there's too much confusion, is the so-called "Internet of Things." (As I've written in this space, I don't believe the Internet of Things (IoT) will unfold as predicted, but it will definitely be a big deal.)

IoT is nothing more than an overly broad and extremely generic label slapped on any kind of device that's not a "computer" per se but has a low power radio in it for sending and/or receiving data, and a low-power chip for processing instructions. IoT technology also includes the electronics that provide some level of access to the functioning of the device.

Home automation is simply the domestic, consumer wing of the IoT.

And now, I'll explain why home smartification is going mainstream.

Google Brillo

Google's annual developers conference, called Google I/O, starts Thursday in San Francisco.

The company hasn't revealed much about what will happen at Google I/O, but I do expect big news on the IoT and home automation front. (I'll be at the event along with Computerworld's Sharon Gaudin, and will report back with my thoughts on any big news.)

A tech news site called The Information revealed last week that Google is working on an IoT operating system code-named "Brillo" that will probably ship as a version of Android.

This appears to be a wholesale rethinking of the home automation approach Google took three years ago when it announced a platform called Android@Home. Google launched big -- then nothing happened. The whole initiative kind of fizzled, and Google stopped talking about it.

According to The Information, one key feature of Brillo is extreme lightness. It can reportedly run on devices that have as little as 32MB of RAM. (Note that the current version of Android barely functions on devices powered by the minimum spec for the the operating system, which is 512MB.)

That will keep costs down, meaning Brillo-powered devices could be installed affordably in inexpensive home devices like light bulbs, doorbells and shower heads. It also means they won't gobble up too much battery power.

Another difference between the Android@Home approach and Brillo is that the Android@Home project was all about home automation, while Brillo is for the whole IoT, including home automation.

The biggest and most significant change at Google since the Android@Home nonstarter was the company's acquisition of Nest.

Nest was founded and headed by former iPod chief Tony Fadell, who now runs Google's home automation group.

The company has a clear design philosophy, which it applied to its first product, the Nest Learning Thermostat, and its smart smoke detector, the Nest Protect.

Also significant is that Google also acquired Dropcam, a smart home camera company that's now part of Fadell's Nest group.

All of those products are the best of their kind, and they offer extreme simplicity, ease of use and automation.

What's interesting about Fadell and the Nest group is that it's run almost like an independent company. I think we can expect to see more good products coming out of Google's Nest group over the next few years.

While it seems reasonable that at some point Nest products will run Brillo, for now Brillo looks like the platform that other companies will use to build hardware and services on top of, while Nest is Google's hardware and services option for home automation.

There is more to come. Expect major news about both Brillo and Nest this week.

Apple Home

In two weeks, Apple will host its own developers conference -- the Worldwide Developers Conference, which starts on June 8. Apple is famously secretive about upcoming announcements. But an apparently false report in Fortune inspired the company to reveal a few facts in advance of WWDC.

After a widely circulated report said Apple's home automation platform, called HomeKit, was delayed until the end of the year, the company came out and said: No, it's right on track. Apple even revealed plans to announce third-party home automation products at its developers conference, and those products will be available in June. Apple claims that it has "dozens of partners" for HomeKit.

When Apple unveiled HomeKit at its developers conference a year ago, execs said it would involve a "common protocol" to allow home automation devices to communicate with each other, and with iPhones and iPads. Since then, however, it has been suggested that two additional hardware platforms may play roles in Apple's home automation initiative: The Apple Watch and Apple TV.

At the Apple Watch rollout in September, Apple Watch vice president Kevin Lynch demonstrated a home-automation app from that not only showed a live video of the inside of a garage, but also enabled the garage door to be opened and closed via the watch. So it looks like Apple Watch is going to be a prime controller for HomeKit-enabled devices.

According to an unconfirmed but credible report on the blog 9to5Mac last week, Apple might unveil Version 9 of iOS at WWDC and the update of the mobile operating system may include a home automation app called Home.

The Home app is a user interface for controlling HomeKit-enabled products, according to the post. It organizes home automation devices by room and enables you to discover, set up and control home automation devices.

That same report said that Apple TV would serve as a hub for HomeKit devices, and for the iOS devices that control them.

In fact, Apple's cryptic graphic for WWDC says "the epicenter of change" and features a colorful rounded square surrounded by lots of different shapes. The conventional Kremlinology on this image is that the square in the middle is Apple TV, and the surrounding objects are home automation devices. If that's accurate, the idea of Apple TV as the hub for home automation is the main theme for Apple this year.

Google and Apple intend to be major players in the mainstreaming of home automation. But other big companies jumped into the ring this month, too.

Samsung introduced a line of chips called Artik for IoT and home automation systems. The company already owns (through acquisition) a company called SmartThings, which makes a hub for controlling and connecting home automation appliances.

And Chinese tech giant Huawei introduced an IoS operating system called LiteOS.

Nearly every major consumer-facing tech company will be involved in the home automation revolution. It's an industry that's just in its infancy and will roll in major revenue for the companies in the future.

So say goodbye to your dumb home. The smartification begins Thursday.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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