Nokia Home Control Center: are we finally ready for the ‘smart home’?

22 12 2008

Full comment was originally published on Ovum’s Straight Talk Daily, 19 December 2008, and republished on theplatform on 4 February 2009.

On 27 November 2008 Nokia announced that it is developing a new product for controlling and linking together existing ‘smart home’ products from third-party manufacturers. The Home Control Center is based on a standard home gateway, and provides an open Linux-based platform for developers of smart home solutions to build on. Customers will be able to control their in-home systems via a single user interface on a mobile phone or Web browser.
 
Is now the time for the smart home?

The promise of a ‘smart home’ has been a long time coming, due partly to a lack of standard protocols for coordinating the various solutions on the market. Smart home technologies allow for remote monitoring and control of heating, lighting, home security, garden watering systems, configurable set-top boxes and many other uses, but existing solutions have had difficulty integrating the many possible products and use cases into a single point of control. The advantages of a smart home include significant potential savings in energy use (and associated costs), improved security and convenience for the user.

Nokia sees that the ability to monitor and control the home environment from a mobile device as an unfulfilled opportunity, and may well have picked the right time to launch this product. The combined effects of the credit crunch and climate change awareness give a powerful moral and financial incentive to cut home energy use. Better monitoring and control systems are one method of achieving this.

Ovum’s most recent consumer survey found that 68% of people rated energy efficiency as their main environmental concern when buying devices, ahead of products being made of recyclable materials, at 20%. Clearly there is consumer interest in products that improve household energy efficiency.

The ubiquity of home wireless networks lowers another barrier to the smart home, by eliminating the need for expensive custom in-building wiring, saving installation costs and increasing the flexibility and modularity of smart home systems.

Additionally, the rising popularity of open mobile platforms (not least Nokia’s own S60) and fast 3G devices means that handsets powerful enough to run such a control interface are reaching mass-market status. We expect this trend to continue as open mobile platforms become even more widespread in 2009.

Nokia wants its platform to be technology-agnostic
 
Nokia’s strategy for integrating the many proprietary third-party solutions is to provide a ‘dictionary’ that can translate the various technologies available into a standard language and provide a simple control interface. It is doing this by building an open Linux-based platform for third parties to build their own solutions onto (although the Home Control Center platform is not open source, rather it provides a number of open APIs). Gaining the support of existing product developers will be absolutely crucial if this platform approach is to be successful, and Nokia is investing in partnership programmes to encourage third-party support.

Nokia’s platform uses open APIs on top of a Linux kernel, which Nokia claims is largely technology-agnostic and allows for future expansion as new technologies emerge. This makes sense: Nokia is building a platform – not just a single solution – and needs to be able to adapt to future technologies, both standards-based and proprietary, if it wants to achieve its aims.

Although the Home Control Center gateway device is not yet ready for release, Nokia has announced some basic specifications: a router with WiFi (802.11n) and multiple Ethernet ports, 6GB of built-in storage and an SD card slot, and several USB ports. Expandability and connectivity are the key features. It can be configured with embedded cellular or vendor-specific radio access (including the common Z-wave home automation wireless standard), and Nokia is willing to explore dual-branding opportunities with partners.

Nokia’s experience with open platforms leaves it well placed 

Despite Nokia’s lack of experience in the smart home space, the company has good experience managing open platforms, which should stand it in good stead. The Home Control Center platform joins Nokia’s existing Linux-based Maemo platform (which runs on the N810 Web tablet) and the Symbian-based S60 platform, which runs on Nokia’s mid- to high-end mobile phones (and which will be made fully open source in mid-2009). Clearly Nokia sees value in building open platforms rather than closed proprietary solutions.

Nokia’s strong brand and existing channels to market, combined with this experience building platforms and managing developer communities, gives it a good chance of realising the smart home vision. Nevertheless, weaving together the many tangled threads of existing solutions will be a huge challenge.

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