Tag Archives: home entertainment

The iCloud and the connected home?

iCloud I’ve been asked about the ‘Connected Home’ more often recently, by a number of different people. What options are there? Should I buy something?

My answer has been fairly consistent; we’re not there yet. Whatever you mean by ‘connected home’, it isn’t a mass market reality.

The disambiguation is necessary because people mean different things by it – either home automation or networked home entertainment systems – and in neither case are there simple, mass-market products or services for people to buy. By home automation, I mean the automation of household services and devices – for example, automatic, centrally controlled electrics and climate control, curtains that close when you clap, smart metering, Internet fridges and beyond. On the media/entertainment front – I mean streaming music and video to any screen or audio device, surround sound, etc.

On the home automation front, the reason things haven’t progressed is because it’s an expensive, niche market which hasn’t validated the investment to make popular. Everyone’s home is too different and too many mechanical bits and pieces would need to fit in place to make it useful. Standardisation – of things like low-power, short range wireless systems like Zigbee and beyond – has helped with automation of some household services (e.g. smart metering), but even those are a way away. And you’ll be hard pressed to standardise light switches, curtain rails, etc. – all the other bits and pieces which might want to be automated. It’s also largely unnecessary, lazy-making tech, IMHO, with the exception of things like smart electricity stuff which plays a broader role in managing energy usage and isn’t just a technology of convenience.

The reason in the home entertainment space is not dissimilar. There’s too much choice! People have hifis, TVs, iPod docks, PCs, PVRs and more; it’s a rare household that has them all from the same manufacturer and getting them to play nicely with each other – even in a uniform environment – can be an act of such astonishing Macgyvery that even those of us with the propensity and the skills prefer to opt for workarounds rather than actually blu-tak an integrated system together.

In addition, for media streaming to work within a home you need two things – fast, consistently reliable wifi (a dream for most people I know) AND a machine to act as a server – which you leave on all the time. Now, it’s well established that the majority of PCs sold are laptops. And it’s true (if less well established) that PCs left on all the time degrade faster (not to mention waste power the vast majority of the time). Wake-on-LAN – the technology by which these machines turn them selves on when triggered by network activity – has been available for some time, but is another configure-challenge. So I suspect – even in a world where you could buy a NAS or Windows Home Server to suit the purpose – that it will remain a distant dream.

Enter the iCloud. Apple’s world of slick hardware and software uniformity already makes its Airplay / iTunes media sharing features easier to configure than most ‘open’ systems. Not as easy as Spotify, sure, but complete with a massive user base, video as well as music, and a global audience. iCloud, putting all those shared music files into – what is to begin with a music locker but you can be sure in time will become a full-on-demand, real-time streaming cloud repository – paves the way for it to act as the cloud-based media server. So in the same was as AppleTV streams films for you, iPods, Macs and other iTunes enabled devices will be able to bring your media to any room at any time.

It’s frightening that Apple’s going to win here as well, but I don’t know if anyone else has the clout or vision to make this happen. Most people are too tied to commercial realities – that of a mixed market – but with Apple’s enormous margins, ridiculous profitability and ‘trojan horse’ appliances making their way into every room in the house, it seems an inevitability that they’ll win through in this market as it evolves. After all, an accidental connected home is still connected…