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Smart homes 'not far away', says Cisco

Automation of home appliances could be just around the corner, believes network specialist

Smart homes 'not far away', says Cisco
The router is now a computer: Wingo

Every consumer tech fair you visit nowadays seems to feature at least one vendor claiming "the smart home is finally here", but despite much noise and ink on the subject, consumers still switch on their lights and oven by hand and some even iron their own clothes.

Cisco believes this all may start to change soon, both globally and in the GCC, because of a device that we all take for granted: the common router.

In an interview with ITP.net, Brett Wingo, global president and general manager of Cisco Consumer, shared his vision of the router-centric smart environment that could soon take shape in homes across the Gulf region.

"As everything in our lives has gone wireless we no longer have the home server or the desktop computer; the router is a computer and now we've put our own software stack on it, you already can have a device in your home that is capable of [delivering] some of these smart features," said Wingo, speaking at Cisco's offices in Dubai, UAE.

Of course these are not just any routers. They are from Cisco's Linksys Smart Wi-fi range and retail at $100 and above. But each smart router comes with a range of software services, app capability and a software developer's kit (SDK) as well as an open developer platform. This allows the tech savvy to extend the router's functionality and deliver a host of extended utilities.

While the kind of features portrayed in sci-fi movies may be years away, Cisco has been steering the debate in more pragmatic directions. As appliances and utilities would ultimately have to be controlled from a single point of access, be it a hosted application or one resident on a mobile device, Cisco believes the infrastructure will be put in place gradually, as consumers discover smart devices and have positive experiences with them.

While some smart home installations already exist, many extend only as far as home cinema and AV solutions and those that are more comprehensive tend to be rigid and bespoke. Wingo highlighted isolated apps that allow the monitoring of home energy consumption from smartphones.

"Consumers are always faster at adopting things than enterprises or service-providers because as everyday consumers we have an insatiable appetite for the next thing," he said.

"I believe the first smart home will come to us in a do-it-yourself [fashion]. I think you will start to see companies like the large do-it-yourself stores bringing smart homes to the masses. It may be something as simple as ‘When I forget to turn my front porch light off at night, if I could just pick up my phone and switch it off, that would be great.'" 

Wingo believes the key to consumer adoption is simplicity and buy-in will occur when a real-world convenience can be demonstrated.

"A great example is the water filter in your refrigerator. When the light comes on to tell you that you need a new one you have to figure out: when do you get it, and where do you buy it? If you had a [smart] appliance connected to your Wi-Fi network, then you could receive a text instead that allowed you to ‘click here' and purchase a replacement filter that can be delivered to your home. That is a very different consumer experience than what is available now."

Wingo said Cisco had conducted consumer surveys on preferred smart home features. A popular item on the wish list was the capability of turning the oven on from your office when you are about to make your commute. Cisco also envisages appliances that are utility-aware, such as clothes dryers that can be set to come on at a time when power is less expensive.

"Things like that are really easy and if the consumer knows that drying their clothes [at that time] costs a dollar less, then there is a mutual benefit," says Wingo. "Better for the environment, better on the consumer's wallet and better for the utility company."

Piecemeal adoption of smart appliances may be the mode, but what of the future when consumers want a single provider for their smart environment? When asked how far away he thought the one-stop-shop model was, Wingo said, "I don't think we're that far away."

To support this, he demonstrated Cisco Connect Cloud, which comes free with the Smart Wi-fi range and is a monitoring suite for devices. Each TV, tablet, phone, computer and games console can have its bandwidth clipped to specified limits and priority can be given to some devices over others.

In another demo Wingo showed us third-party app Netproofer that allows external filtering of websites by device and time. He argues that in the BYOD world, the smart home is about more than mood lighting and automated utilities. It is about controlling the flow of information. And getting the kids off Facebook long enough to do their homework.

One major GCC provider to integrate the Linksys smart routers in its infrastructure is QTel. The Qatari telco operates an optical fibre network that delivers optimum bandwidth to its subscribers, but with entry-level router technology in place, Wingo said, it was difficult for any value-adding services to be rolled out.

"QTel saw the smart router and loved it. They decided to put it in [every subscriber's] home. They bought tens of thousands of units."

Wingo told us most smart wi-fi routers retail at between $100 and $200. Apps range from $1 to $9.99. Using the example of a control system for a light he said the cost would be between $20 and $50. Other devices such as curtains require bespoke motors and can cost a little more. But what about the large appliances such as washing machines and televisions?

"We spent a lot of time with the television manufacturers. They are moving into smart devices in a big way. They actually don't get all that big a premium for a [smart version] even though they have to install a wireless module and write software for it. I think smart products are just going to become the standard."

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