Comfort zone

The provision of voice, video and data infrastructures in residential areas is providing convenience, flexibility and enhanced services to home users. It is also spurring interest in smart appliances.

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By  Zoe Moleshead Published  September 29, 2003

Home networking|~||~||~|While an IT infrastructure is a given in most business environments today, home technology has predominantly been restricted to PCs. However, this picture is starting to change. Not only are residents beginning to invest in wireless local area networks (WLANs) to connect their increasing number of PCs or laptops, but their use of the internet now extends beyond simple browsing to the downloading and sharing of music, pictures and even movies.

According to figures from In-Stat/MDR, the home networking market will boom from US$1.8 billion in 2002 to US$5.3 billion in 2007. Much of this growth will be fuelled by media networking, which only accounted for 6% of revenues in 2002, but will make up 49% by the end of 2007.

Furthermore, the growing connectivity demands of the tenant have not gone unnoticed by the region’s property developers. The UAE, in particular, has seen an increasing number of apartment and housing complexes that place technology at the heart of their appeal.

“Emaar always had a vision that as far as their properties were concerned they wanted something totally different. It is not only about the bricks and mortar, they wanted to make a living experience and technology was always a big portion of that,” says Arvind Bhatnagar, CEO of Emaar’s technology division, Sahm Technologies.

Fulfilling this vision has led Emaar and Sahm to deploy IP networking infrastructures that deliver voice, video and data over one cable throughout its various developments, which include Emirates Hills and Dubai Marina. According to Bhatnagar, this not only offers tenants a one-stop shop for all their communications needs, but it also provides them with a wealth of services.

“The reason we are laying an IP network is because it is the latest protocol and over that fibre we can provide a lot of futuristic services that are very high quality,” he confirms.

“Over this single strand of glass we are providing over 250 TV channels and we are providing voice. People can either have IP telephony or ordinary telephones with all the caller ID features, and we are providing all possible bandwidths for internet. At the moment we have two standards — the 64 Kbits/s or the 215 Kbits/s. But we also provide 1 Mbit/s and 2 Mbits/s to residential customers,” Bhatnagar adds.

Emaar, however, is not alone in recognising the value of technology to today’s home owner. Al Yousuf Group has also announced plans to deploy IP telephony, unified messaging and WLANs in its latest Rega Al Buteen, Dubai-based building. While Emaar has placed entertainment very much at the forefront of its technology goals, the IT infrastructure is all about communications and staying in touch for Al Yousuf.

“Private wireless networks are deployed inside each flat with two access points installed to provide wireless communication throughout the apartment. Tenants will be able to use their own PDAs or laptops with wireless cards to access local area network (LAN) services, the internet, e-mail, telephony, unified messages, printers and so on,” says Suhail Zain Eldeen, director, Al Yousuf IT companies.

The provision of voice, video and data infrastructures in the home environment also opens the door to smart appliances. While the internet connection can act as a backbone to link devices to the web, wireless networks can also play a part in connecting devices and facilitating the exchange of information between them. While research group In-Stat /MDR reports that the smart appliance market is not growing rapidly, it still expects a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 53.4% between 2002 and 2007.

“The market for smart appliances is affected by drivers, such as internet access, home networking, education and price. More and more consumers are interested in digital entertainment products, and housing developments where connectivity is built-in are also on the rise. These factors will influence the adoption of smart appliances,” says Cindy Wolf, industry analyst with In-Stat/MDR.

||**||Smart appliances|~||~||~|This growth will be cemented by an increasing number of players and products entering the market. LG has already introduced its range of internet appliances, which include a refrigerator, washing machine, air conditioning units and a microwave. Philips has also unveiled its Connected Planet vision, while Samsung, Whirlpool and Electrolux are among the other players to rollout smart appliances.

Vendors agree that the growing interest in digital content and the ability to share this content anywhere and through any device, combined with the increasing tech and internet savviness of consumer, is driving interest in smart appliances

“People have music and photos on their PCs that they would like to share in different ways, not just through their PC. People don’t want to sit in front of their computer to do things, they want freedom of choice and place,” says Louis Hakim, corporate brand manager, Philips Electronics Middle East & Africa.

However, it is not just the ability to share or access content from PCs through other devices, such as a television. It is also about being able to manage devices remotely and even download information on to appliances like refrigerators, washing machines and microwaves. All of which, provides further freedom to users.

“The appeal of smart appliances is primarily the convenience part. One of the key factors that these products have is remote connectivity and remote order processing. There are so many people in the Middle East who would love it if their houses were cool before they arrived home. With these internet appliances this is possible,” explains Hamad Malik, senior regional manager, marketing & corporate communications with LG Electronics, Middle East & Africa.

“With the air conditioner’s remote system, you can set the timer to turn the unit on with the temperature you want, or turn it off if you have left it on accidently,” he explains.

There are, however, also a number of factors that are still hindering the uptake of smart appliances, with connectivity and standards being the most prominent. While smaller kitchen appliances, such as coffee machines, do not necessarily require broadband connections as they transfer less data between them and don’t need to be connected continuously, other devices benefit greatly from having a broadband connection.

For example, LG’s devices can connect with one another through traditional electricity. However, the vendor recommends a 256 Kbits/s connection to attain the greatest performance, while its refrigerator cannot communicate outbound without a broadband connection. Locally, this problem is further compounded by the high cost of broadband and slow uptake among regional users.

Standards also need to be clarified. While most vendors say their products offer interoperability and are capable of connecting with other brands, the wide range of standards is probably enough to confuse the average user. For example, Philips uses Microsoft’s Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) and Wi-Fi standards, while LG offers the Living Network Control Protocol (LnCP), but is also capable of bridging with standards such as Sony’s HAVi and Sun Microsystems’ Jini, among others.
As such, Wolf cites standards as one of the key areas that vendors need to address.

“Manufacturers need to continue addressing issues of connectivity platforms, software, applications and standards,” she says. “Ease of use and features are also very important,” Wolf continues.

Many of the issues surrounding home networking can be addressed through education. Although vendors are keen to stress the simplicity and ease of use of their products, the fact remains that most of these devices need to be installed by engineers. Furthermore, there still exists a generation of technophobes, which have significantly more spending power than the techno-friendly younger generation.

“There are different generations of people to consider — those who are born into the technology age, who are not necessarily wizards but can use a computer if you put it in front of them, and those who are intimidated by technology and don’t want to get close to it. This generation of products speaks to a younger generation, a more technically tuned generation,” admits Hakim.

Despite these concerns, vendors suggest that using these smart appliances is akin to operating a mobile phone or PDA. “These appliances are easy to use and it is very easy to navigate through the features as everything is icon driven,” says Malik.

||**||Future plans|~||~||~|While the vendors concede that the idea of a fully connected home may still be a couple of years away in this region, they cite the activities and interest of local property developers, and single out individual products that are particularly pertinent to the local market.

“The whole concept of having a fully networked house will take some time, but people will start buying the odd products here and there, such as AC units, which are very pertinent to this region and not such a high investment. There are also a lot of [housing] projects… with wireless capabilities and plans to have smart appliances in buildings,” says Malik.

Emaar is one of those property developers looking into the provision of smart appliances. Bhatnagar emphasises the role that remote monitoring can play in easing the security concerns of home owners. For example, the deployment of web cameras around the home would allow users to monitor their residences via the internet if they were out of town.

“We are already looking at smart appliances and we are going to look at things like home security. So if people are going on leave and they have a TV camera connected to one of our ports then that security camera can monitor what is happening in their home,” he confirms

“We are aggressively looking at these technologies [smart appliances], but there is a pyramid of requirements and we have started off with the basic requirements first. However, we are looking at more value added services as we speak,” continues Bhatnagar.

Moving forward, the vision of a connected or networked home looks set to be cemented further still. As broadband connections become increasingly commonplace and cheaper to deploy, bandwidth connectivity between devices will no longer be a concern. In parallel, the cost of smart appliances will tumble, further encouraging uptake.

The mobile phone will also play an increasing role in the home network. “We offer a wireless module, which is basically the heart of a mobile phone. You could put this module in a home and then 10 minutes before you arrive home, you can send an SMS to a number, which is the number of the module, and it can switch on your AC. You can basically control anything on that switch, washing machines, lighting and so on,” says Izzat Kittaneh, product manager, Siemens Middle East.

In the meantime, local property developers look set to continue their evolution as service providers. While Sahm is expecting its customer base to have increased seven-fold by the end of this year, it is also planning to ramp up its range of services.

“We are thinking of introducing services like video on demand, games on demand and interactive TV. They are all going to be part of the package. The living experience for people staying in Emaar properties is going to be quite different,” states Bhatnagar.||**||

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