The iPad Revolution: A Processing Paradigm Shift

As a longtime systems integrator, I have seen a few products introduced to the home automation market which have caught the imagination of home owners enough to become standard offering across many of the automation system brands.

Although the iPad certainly fits in this category, in my mind, it is much more. The iPad has created an entirely new paradigm in the way home automation systems communicate. The comparison that follows will hopefully illustrate this point clearly but, before we jump in I would like to provide some foundation by giving a little primer on processors and their history in the home automation industry.

It should be noted that this paper and comparison is specific to multi-system home automation systems: that is, home automation that brings the control of multiple systems such as video, audio, lights, shades, HVAC, etc., under one, unifying automation system.

Simply put, processors are used to receive, translate, and distribute control instructions from and to devices that often do not, for lack of a better term, speak the same language. They also perform many behind the scenes functions such as control of the timing, amplitude, sequencing of communications, and the look, function, and motion of the graphics within control interfaces.

Control Interfaces, also known as control devices or user interfaces, are the devices we use to communicate with our automation system, usually through touch, but sometimes through voice or even through a passive sensor that reacts to light, temperature, or unsafe gases. Common types of touch based control interfaces are as follows: hard button remotes, touch screen and hybrid remotes, in-wall keypads, wall mounted, touch screens, mobile devices, and personal computers.

Prior to the inception of the iPad, central processing was the only method by which a home automation system could control multiple disparate systems and devices though one interface. The exceptions to this were systems that used personal computers as smart control interfaces. These PC systems were a bit clumsy because of the size of computers overall and, as such, became the domain of mostly do-it-yourselfers.
The iPad was the first affordable touch screen to come along that had the mass appeal, portability, processing power, touch screen sensitivity, and touch screen real estate to be a viable control device AND a processor for multi-system home automation.

This is where the paradigm shift presents itself. The illustration below is a simplified view showing the fundamental differences between central processor based systems and systems that use a smart control interface like the iPad and other mobile devices to do the processing. You can see that the control signals for the latter are less circuitous and more modular. A more direct signal path also has the added advantage of being faster. Add to that, the hardware savings by replacing expensive proprietary central processors with inexpensive network adaptors and you start to see the power of this new paradigm.

Another important differentiator between these approaches to processing is the risk factor in using one piece, a central processor, upon which the entre system relies If that piece goes down, the whole system goes down. With control interface processing you can have an iPad go down without affecting the overall system. Just pick up another iPad and you’re good to go.

Most of the major home automation brands still use central processor based systems. While these brands all offer iPad as one of the control options, they still do most of the heavy lifting with central processors while using the iPad or other smart device as, well, a dumb device. That is not to say the central processor based systems do not have their advantages. They do. Manufacturers with the proprietary, central processor approach are not at the mercy of smart device manufacturers such as Apple and Google. They often create their own control devices that are more specific to home automation applications. A perfect example of this is a hard button, handheld remote which, because of its tactile operation, can be used without having to look at it. This is particularly desirable in a bedroom application.

Another advantage to the central processor based manufacturers are that they’ve been in business much longer than their software based competitors on the Control Interface Processing side of the equation. This translates to much larger dealer networks and install bases, which can give a prospective home automation buyer the security of knowing that they are dealing with a business that is here to stay.
In summary, there are pluses and minuses to each approach. Time will tell how the various automation brands will adjust their approaches and which of the newer companies employing smart devices and Control Processing will rise to the top. Stay tuned!

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