Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Gramophone: The Evolution of a Veteran Audio/Video Dealer

My latest blog post, "Gramophone: The Evolution of a Veteran Audio/Video Dealer" was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

https://restechtoday.com/gramophone-the-evolution-of-a-veteran-audio-video-dealer/

Below is a copy of the article.  

Years ago I worked at Gramophone; a very successful audio/video dealer that has been in business for almost 50 years.  I worked there until my family and I fulfilled a long standing ambition to relocate to a western ski town.  On a recent trip back to the east coast I had the opportunity to visit Gramophone and see the changes that had taken place over the past twelve years as the company has continued to expand, and thrive, even in the face of a pandemic.  This article looks at Gramophone as a model for other AV companies.

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COVID, supply change issues, inflation, and a host of other problems have made this a challenging time for businesses in general and audio/video dealers in particular.  With that in mind I thought it a good time to take an in-depth look at an audio/video dealer that: 

  • Has been in business for close to 50 years
  • Has survived multiple economic downturns
  • Has embraced technological changes in the products consumers want
  • Is thriving in today’s challenging times

Gramophone was founded in 1976 by Brian Hudkins.  Brian had gained knowledge of the business by working for another dealer for four years before opening his own shop specializing in high-end, two-channel, audio. Unlike today, in 1976, there were no high definition TVs, no surround sound, and no computer controlled smart home products.  That isn’t to say that there weren’t quality products at that time. For example, tube based amplifiers from Marantz and vintage Quad electrostatic speakers are highly sought after today and can still provide amazing sound. 

In 1980 there was a serious recession.  A number of Gramophone’s competitors went out of business but Gramophone survived because of its focus on selling high quality, premium brands of the period including Bang & Olufsen, KEF, McIntosh, Nakamichi, and Yamaha. 

With a focus on looking at emerging technologies Brian saw how video could become an integral part of the business.  In 1982 Gramophone started selling high performance video systems based around 12” laser video discs and the first high performance video displays from Pioneer. Gramophone also offered a complete selection of movies and concerts on video disc. 

Again, with a focus on emerging technologies, in 1983 Gramophone was selected by Sony as one of fifty dealers in the United States to introduce the Compact Disc, which was the first “digital music” source available to consumers. Gramophone also stocked a catalog of CD’s as “record stores” were not yet offering them.

Some additional technical innovations that Gramophone embraced are:

  • In 1995 Gramophone displayed, and sold, the first 42” flat panel TV’s in Maryland.
  • In 1997 Pioneer introduced the DVD player in a combination machine that played both 12” laser video discs and 5” DVD’s (Digital Video Disc). Gramophone was selected as one of 25 dealers in the USA to introduce this model
  • In 2000 Gramophone started selling smart home products and by 2004 it had a staff of programmers to develop smart home systems for customers
  • In 2005 Gramophone was one of the first dealers in the United States to offer the Kaleidescape movie management system that allowed content to be stored, and organized, on computer hard disks and played instantaneously in multiple rooms in a home

Gramophone didn’t only grow by embracing new technologies as they became available.  They also, over time, opened new showrooms, expanded the size of their original showroom, expanded their business relationships, and expanded the services they offered customers. 

  • In 1989 Gramophone was one of a small group of dealers who were offering installation services.  These dealers banded together to form a trade association called CEDIA (Custom Installation Design & Installation Association).
  • In 1996 Gramophone joined HTSA (Home Theater Specialists of America). HTSA is a group of almost 100 similar dealers throughout the USA who share best practices and negotiate pricing to allow members to have pricing competitive with DIY big box stores while also offering a full gamut of services.
  • In 2005 Gramophone added interior design services for home theaters as well as other areas of the home.

A Major Change

A major change was coming to Gramophone.  In 2005 Andrew Davis joined Gramophone as a sales person.   Andrew came with six years of experience selling audio/video products at other dealers.  Five years later Andrew became a sales manager and the following year, with a business partner, Andrew purchased Gramophone from Brian.

Brian moved into an ambassador role immediately after the purchase.  This role helped ensure that processes were maintained, relationships grew, and vendors understood the transition. An abrupt exit of anyone with such tenure would be strenuous on staff and professional contacts.

Andrew embraced Gramophone’s culture of innovation and growth.  He has expanded, and diversified, Gramophone’s service offerings while maintaining a focus quality and customer satisfaction. 

In 2014 Gramophone added full design/build construction services to its offerings allowing Gramophone to build out home theaters, lower level entertainment spaces, and other interior improvements.  Gramophone now has two custom home builders on staff to lead these projects and a staff of construction professionals, including 14 electricians.  Gramophone’s goal wasn’t to compete with architects for this design/build business but was driven by customers’ requests for high quality project delivery and one-stop shopping. 

Gramophone doesn’t take on any design/build project.  All their design/build projects go back to their roots and incorporate audio/video systems and smart home technology.  And, to support the growth of this facet of the business, in 2017 Gramophone purchased a kitchen and bath showroom.  After remodeling that space Gramophone leverages it to independently drive the sales of new design/build projects as well as to let customer understand how technology can be integrated into their home. 

Gramophone has always believed in the necessity of allowing customers to experience how technology can enhance their home.  In 1998 Gramophone incorporated a smart home technology show house into their showroom.  The show house included a mocked up kitchen, living room, bedroom, outdoor entry, and patio that all included smart home technology, video, and audio distribution.  It allowed the sales staff to educate customers on the benefits of these technologies in their home and to clearly show how technology didn’t have to take over a home’s décor.

Today, the kitchen/bath showroom includes a dedicated space to help customers understand the benefit of lighting design.  A mock up of a dining room is used to demonstrate this.  First the room is lit using a basic builder supplied chandelier with bright, exposed bulbs that harshly light the space.  Then in turn the chandelier is dimmed, sconces are used to add to the light in the room, overhead fixtures provide a wall wash of light on wall mounted art, and narrow beam spots provide task lighting on the table.  The affect of this layering of light in the dining room is dramatic and allows customers to understand for themselves the value of lighting design.

In addition, an array of 80 lighting fixtures in the ceiling allows a customer to understand how other aspects of lighting design, including color temperature, can impact their home.

To support the delivery of lighting design services Gramophone has an AIA certified lighting designer on staff. 

Also in 2014 Gramophone expanded into ecommerce with the introduction of SKY by Gramophone.  SKY by Gramophone allows ecommerce customers to purchase many of the same brands of products that Gramophone sells through it showrooms including Audioquest, Bluesound, B&W, Denon, GoldenEar, JBL, Kaleidescape, Leon, McIntosh, NAD, Sennheiser, Totem, and many more.  Gramophone operates a 40,000 sq. ft. warehouse dedicated to the SKY by Gramophone ecommerce business. 

Investing in Challenging Times

Gramophone is currently building a new 22,000 sq. ft. showroom.  Part of this showroom will include offices for Gramophone’s marketing team.  Gramophone has fully embraced social media and acts as a thought leader.  The new showroom will also include a video production studio for the creation of online videos that support Gramophone’s social media and marketing efforts.

Today, one of the biggest challenges facing businesses throughout the country is the difficulty in obtaining products due to bottlenecks in the supply chain.  Chips for electronics are especially in short supply and are the backbone of the products sold by Gramophone.  Andrew recognized this issue early and ordered ample quantities of products to avoid being caught short.  He continues to look ahead, placing orders for what he believes the company will need, allowing time for delays in delivery.  For example, this fall saw the hint of copper shortages on the horizon.  To make sure Gramophone’s design/build projects weren’t held up Andrew purchased pallets of Romex electrical wire.

Andrew also made large, early purchases of, now, hard-to-get, McIntosh audio/video components.  As a constant visual reminder to the sales staff that Gramophone has these products in stock (while many other dealers are out of stock of these products) Andrew has boxes of some components stacked up in the showroom in clear view of the sales staff. 

These are just two examples of how Gramophone focuses on its supply chain.  In today’s business environment a company needs to constantly focus on the materials it needs to serve its customers and it needs to be proactive, not reactive, to challenges.

Conclusions

Gramophone has grown throughout its almost 50 year history way beyond its humble beginnings as a small audio dealer selling two-channel stereo products.  Innovation, foresight, and a focus on quality and meeting customer needs have driven its success in both good economic times and through several economic downturns.  Over the years it has won countless awards and I hope that an understanding of how Gramophone has thrived will help other businesses do the same.

 

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

A Baker’s Dozen of Smart Home Mistakes to Avoid

My latest blog post, "A Baker’s Dozen of Smart Home Mistakes to Avoid" was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

https://restechtoday.com/a-bakers-dozen-of-smart-home-mistakes-to-avoid/

Below is a copy of the article.  

Creating a smart home can be both personally and financially rewarding.  There is something magical when devices in a home seem to anticipate the occupants’ needs and automatically take actions to fulfill them.  And, there is no arguing with the satisfaction gained when your utility bills drop. Unfortunately, creating a smart home can be a mine field of potential mistakes that can be both costly and lead to frustration.  Here are my top twelve.

  1. Not starting with a plan

Creating a smart home is more similar to a major technology upgrade that a corporation might take on than a home improvement project.  As such, it benefits from a much more formal planning process.  Start by documenting the goals for your smart home.  Are you trying to save energy, improve the safety and security of your home, or just make it a more convenient place to live?   Next start planning out how you will implement your smart home such that each piece of your implementation plan needs to trace back to, and help achieve, one of the goals you have documented.  For example, if one of your goals is to save energy then installing a smart thermostat that includes an automated set back feature makes perfect sense.  On the other hand installing Sonos speakers around your home shouldn’t be in your plan if your only goal is to improve the safety and security of your home.  Without a well thought out plan you will probably spend more money on your smart home than you planned and won’t achieve your goals. 

This isn’t to say that there can’t be a phase two of your smart home plan where you expand your goals to include, for example, Sonos speakers.  However, when you set out goals and put a plan in place you need to show discipline and keep on track.

  1. Not starting with a robust and secure network

The smart home products you install in your home are going to rely on your homes network to operate.  While many smart home products use Z-Wave and Zigbee to communicate with each other wirelessly, they still are going to communicate with a hub that sits on your home’s network.  Unless you have a robust and secure network, you are going to have frustrating problems with your smart home.  The latest version of WiFi (WiFi 6E) includes new capabilities designed for smart homes that help it handle more concurrently operating devices that are typical of a smart home.

In addition to having a network that is robust enough to handle all the smart home devices you plan to install, the network must be secure.  First the username/password of the router must be changed from any defaults provided by the manufacturer to a very strong one.  The first thing a hacker will do is try to break into a router using common, default usernames and passwords.  Second, choose a router with a strong firewall from a reliable manufacturer.  Buying a cheap, used router on eBay or Craig’s List is simply not a good idea.  Your computer network is the foundation of your smart home so investing in high quality network hardware makes sense.

  1. Not starting small

There is a natural tendency to jump in and automate everything right from the start.  Unfortunately, this approach will be a painful one.  There is a lot to learn about smart home technology that can’t be gained from reading.  The best approach is to start small and learn by doing.  You might, for example, find that the light switch you chose doesn’t work as well as you thought and another brand would better fulfill your needs.  If you started your project by purchasing 20 smart light switches then you have wasted a lot of money.  But, if you just started your project by purchasing two smart switches then it isn’t a big deal to change to another brand.

  1. Not choosing devices that work together

Unfortunately, there are a wide variety of smart home technologies that don’t communicate with each other.  Unless you research each product you choose for your home carefully, you may find that, for example, the smart light bulbs you chose won’t communicate with your hub and you can’t control them.  There is a lack of standards that would let all smart devices communicate with each other so it is up to the homeowner, or integrator, to make sure that all the products that are chosen for a smart home system are compatible. 

  1. Choosing products from companies that go out of business

If the company that manufactured a chair you bought goes out of business it isn’t a big deal.  On the other hand, many smart home products leverage computer programming running on cloud servers.  If the company goes out of business these cloud servers go away and your smart home device turns into a brick.  For this reason that cool, new light switch being sold on Kickstarter by a startup company comes with significant risk.  That company could become the next Google or Facebook.  On the other hand, the company may never survive the process of developing their product and you could lose your investment.  It is important to not only research the products you use in your smart home to make sure they fulfill your requirements but to also research the manufacturers to make sure they are going to continue operating and provide ongoing support for the products you purchase from them.

  1. Not focusing on keeping your smart home devices secure

Just like your router the default usernames and passwords on all your smart home devices need to be changed to very strong ones when you install them.  In 2016 hackers installed malware in countless IoT devices whose owners hadn’t bothered to change the default username and passwords.  This “Botnet” of infected devices was then used for a distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) that took down large portions of the Internet.  Today, most manufacturers don’t include default usernames and passwords; instead requiring the owner to enter their own to start with.  But, this isn’t a universal practice and it is up to homeowners to choose usernames and passwords that can’t be easily guessed.  For example, choosing “admin” for the username and “password” for the password is a bad idea.

In addition, every smart home device is a small computer and just like your laptop it needs updates to patch vulnerabilities.  If you don’t want the video from your security cameras being displayed around the Internet then you need to make sure that the firmware is kept up to date.  Some devices are intelligent enough to automatically update themselves.  However, many devices don’t include this feature and require the homeowner to do this manually.  Personally, I keep a list of all the devices in my smart home that require manual updates.  Once a month I check every device to see if there is a firmware update available.  If there is I perform the update.  This is a bit of a PITA but it lets me sleep better knowing that some smart teenager with too much free time isn’t going to start flashing the lights in my home at 2am; or worse.

  1. Focusing on price over quality

Don’t get me wrong.  There are bargains to be found when shopping for smart home devices.  But, you always need to make sure you are buying quality components from a manufacturer that will continue to support their devices over time.  There is nothing worse than having problems with a smart home device, calling the manufacturer for support, getting someone on the phone that barely speaks English, and they aren’t helpful at all.  At that point you really have little choice but to replace the device; spending even more money than you would have if you bought a higher quality component in the first place.

  1. Not planning for inevitable problems

At some point in time you are going to have problems and require assistance.  This is true for things throughout your home including appliances, your furnace, and your plumbing.  In the past it was pretty easy to figure out where to go for help when something in your home isn’t working.  If you have a water leak you call a plumber.  If you don’t have power you call an electrician.  When you have created a smart home system by integrating components from a large number of different manufacturers and something doesn’t work it can be a very challenging problem.  If you have:

·         Alexa smart speakers for voice control

·         Samsung SmartThings hub

·         GE Z-Wave light switches

When you suddenly can’t get voice commands to control your lights, who, do you call for help?  While integration of products from multiple manufacturers is inevitable (not every manufacturer makes every type of device you may want in your smart home), trying to keep the number of manufacturers to a minimum makes sense from a maintainability and support perspective. 

  1. Not planning for change

Smart home technology is rapidly evolving.  You need to understand that change is inevitable.  Parts of your system will become outdated over time and you will want to replace them.  Because of this you want to choose products that can easily be replaced.  An example of a product that doesn’t fit this goal is a smart refrigerator with a built in smart home hub.  The average lifespan of a refrigerator is 17 years.  In that timeframe the smart home hub built into it will have become a dinosaur.  In addition, today a refrigerator with a smart home hub is considered a premium product with a premium price tag.  You are much better off spending much less money on a more conventional refrigerator and place an inexpensive tablet in your kitchen for smart home control. 

  1. Not understanding the difference between automation and control

The ultimate goal of a smart home is for it to understand your needs and to automatically take actions to help you.  For example, when you enter your home carrying armfuls of groceries after a trip to the store, if it is nighttime, your smart home should turn on pathway lights for safety and convenience.  If your smart home only provides for control then while struggling not to drop any of your groceries you are left yelling “Alexa, turn on the hall light” and “Alexa, Turn on the kitchen light”.  Voice control is not true automation.  It is just a substitute for reaching out and manually turning on a light switch. 

Today, it isn’t easy to provide true automation.  But, that should be the goal if you are truly interested in what a smart home can provide. 

  1. Confusing names

The names you choose for lights, other devices, and groups that will be part of your smart home need to be carefully chosen.   Voice assistants will pick up on these names so assigning, for example, a new light switch, the first name that comes to mind, will lead to a smart home that both difficult, and frustrating, to operate.  For example, nobody, possibly besides yourself, will ever be able to remember that you named the living room floor lamp, the torchiere. 

  1. Don’t skimp on control points

Different smart home platforms use different types of devices for controlling thart devices in a home.  Professionally installed smart home systems can be controlled through proprietary wall mounted keypads and touch panels, a smart phone app, and voice commands using Alexa or Google Assistant smart speakers.  While your chosen platform may not support all these options it is important to make sure that it is very convenient for everyone in your family to control your smart home.  If your family uses voice commands to control your home then you need to spread smart speakers around the house so family members don’t have to walk to the other side of the house to adjust the thermostat.  If your smart home system doesn’t support voice commands then spreading tablets that run the smart home app around the home is a good alternative.  Just make sure your system is convenient to operate.

  1. Not focusing on who will be using the system

If you are single, live on your own, and developing a smart home where you will be the only user then you can skip this one.  However, whether you are a professional integrator designing smart homes for other people or you are a hobbyist with a family or roommates, there will be other people using what you design.  If you design your smart home without involving them, then you will inevitably run into problems.  These other people are going to be as much users of the system as you are and if they find it confusing and difficult to operate you are going to have problems.  To avoid having family members or clients reject what you have installed, the best approach is to involve all the people who are going to use the system in its design.  It may slow things down as you have to educate everyone on your goals, what approach you are taking to accomplish those goals, and to some extent the technology you will use.  However, the time you spend up front will pay off in the end.

Hopefully, being aware of the potential mistakes you can make when building a smart home will help you avoid them.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Mini-Split Heat Pumps and Smart Home Integration

 My latest blog post, "Mini-Split Heat Pumps and Smart Home Integration" was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

https://restechtoday.com/mini-split-heat-pumps-and-smart-home-integration/

Below is a copy of the article.  

Mini-split heat pumps, also referred to as ductless heat pumps, have become an energy efficient alternative to standard HVAC systems.  The system consists of two parts, an outdoor compressor unit and an indoor air handler.  The two components of the system are connected by refrigerant lines.  During the summer, heat is removed from inside the home and it is released outside.  In the winter, the process is reversed.  The outside unit absorbs heat and releases it through the inside air handler.

Image: energystar.go 

There are significant advantages to a mini-split heat pump compared to other types of heating/cooling systems in a home.

  • The system provides both heating and cooling.  There are not separate furnace and air conditioner units
  • In new construction there is no labor intensive ductwork to install; reducing cost.  In older homes this ductwork may not be insulated leading to wasted energy and higher costs for heating and cooling.  In addition, the joints in the ductwork may not be sealed allowing heated, or cooled, air to leak into walls, ceilings, the home’s attic, etc.  This again leads to wasted energy and higher costs for heating and cooling.
  • According to energystar.gov “Because they transfer instead of generate heat, ENERGY STAR certified ductless mini-split heat pumps use 60% less energy than standard home electric resistance-based heating systems.”
  • Again, according to energystar.gov, mini-split heat pumps can save on cooling costs by 30% compared to conventional room air conditioners
  • Depending on the model being installed, multiple indoor units may be able to be connected to a single outdoor unit
  • The separation of the indoor air handler from the outdoor compressor unit reduces noise when compared to window air conditioners
  • For added comfort different heating/cooling set points can be set in different rooms of a home. 
  • Unoccupied rooms can be shut off from heating/cooling to save on energy use and the cost of heating/cooling

However, before you throw away your old forced air heating/cooling system and replace it with a mini-split heat pump, there are a few things to be aware of

  • Mini-split systems are not inexpensive; especially compared to the cost of a window air conditioner.  I recently priced the installation of a min-split system for a single room in my home and the cost exceeded $5000.
  • Indoor units are typically mounted high on a wall and are not what I would refer to as “decorator friendly”.  There are some indoor units that can be mounted within a ceiling but these can add to the cost of installation
  • Like any HVAC system, mini-split systems need to be carefully sized to a home. This typically means involving a professional installer which adds to the overall cost.  In addition, while a mini-split system is much simpler to install than a ducted HVAC system, the system’s warranty may be violated by a DIY installation.

Smart Home Integration

There is a great deal to be gained by integrating an HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system with a smart home processor/hub. 

  1. The thermostat can be set back based on occupancy.  When nobody is home both energy and money can be saved by setting back the thermostat.  The normal set point can be restored as soon as a family member comes home.
  2. Since a mini-split system provides for different settings in different zones of the home, even more money can be saved by setting back an individual zone when that area of the home isn’t occupied
  3. Using a product like RoomMe, which tracks peoples’ locations in a home through their smart phones, the set point of a mini-split system can automatically be adjusted to a person’s personal preference in the area of the home where they are currently located. 
  4. Again to save energy, and money on utility bills, the set point can be adjusted based on the weather forecast.  In the spring and fall when temperatures can be cool at night but warm during the day, the system can be set to warm the house up first thing in the morning.  Then the set point can then be set back to take advantage of warming outside temperatures during the day. 
  5. And more…

The challenge of implementing the above use cases with a mini-split system is that there isn’t a single, centralized, thermostat that can easily be replaced with a smart thermostat.  Instead, each zone of the mini-split system has its own built in thermostat that is fully integrated into the room unit and cannot be replaced with one that is compatible with your smart home processor/hub.  Fortunately third party companies have come up with a solution to this problem.

Sensibo and Ambi Climate both offer products that allow smart home processors/hubs to integrate with a wide variety of mini-split systems.  In addition, they also allow integration with a wide range of heat pumps, in room air conditioners and window units.  Throughout the remainder of the article I will simply refer to mini-split systems but it is important to remember that Sensibo and Ambi Climate devices can control many other types of air conditioners and heat pumps besides just mini-splits. 

Sensibo


Sensibo also Sensibo also offers two products for controlling min-split, heat pump, and air conditioning systems that are operated by a remote control.

Sensibo Sky

Sensibo Air

Both products allow you to, using your smart phone, control your mini-split system from anywhere, can automatically turn the connected mini-split system on/off through geo-location, offer smart temperature settings, and 7-day scheduling.  The Sensibo Air also offers compatibility with Apple HomeKit, is slightly smaller (approximately 2-5/8” wide x 2-5/8” long x 3/4” high) and is compatible with their optional Room Sensor that can be used to determine if a room is occupied, or not.  Finally, according to Sensibo, the Sensibo Air includes a more advanced chipset. 

Both products are small and would easily fit into a contemporary décor with their white plastic cases and dark plastic IR windows.  Like the Ambi Climate Mini and Ambi Climate 2, the Sensibo Air and Sky control min-split, heat pump, and air conditioning systems by sending IR commands to the device. 

Sensibo provided me with a Sensibo Air and a Sensibo Room Sensor to test for this article.  Throughout the remainder of the article I will simply refer to the Sensibo Air, instead of both the Sensibo Air and Sky as the products are primarily the same, other than the differences I’ve already pointed out, and all my testing was done with the Sensibo Air.

Sensibo appears to be compatible with a broader range of min-split, heat pump, and air conditioning systems than Ambi Climate.  I base this on the fact that:

  • The Ambi Climate Mini and Ambi Climate 2 will only work with mini-split systems that have discrete power on and power off IR commands
  • The Sensibo Air will work with mini-split systems that states that have either discrete power on/off commands or power toggle commands.

Whether Sensibo truly has a larger compatibility list than Ambi Climate I don’t have a way to validate.  However, another Crestron programmer helped me test the Crestron driver I wrote for the Sensibo Air.  He has a Mr. Cool mini-split system and only Sensibo is compatible with it.  Like Ambi Climate, Sensibo offers a tool for checking compatibility on their web site.

Included with the Sensibo Air are a power cord, plug-in power supply, and a small double-sided adhesive pad for wall mounting the Sensibo Air.  The Sensibo Air also has a keyhole slot in the underside of the case for mounting the device to a wall using a screw.  Printed on the packaging are the basic instructions for downloading the Sensibo app and for contacting Sensibo support if you need assistance.

Setup

Installing the Sensibo app is very simple. (Note: the following was done on an iPhone.  The process for Android devices may be slightly different)

  1. Download the Sensibo app from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store.
  2. Provide permission for the app to show notifications and to use your location.
  3. Setup an account, which just includes your name, email address, and a password.
  4. With the account created you then need to log in and add a device
  5. Select Sensibo Sky or Sensibo Air from the list of Sensibo devices.
  6. Plug in the device and wait until the indicator light is blinking
  7. Locate the QR Code on the back of the unit and scan it with your smart phone’s camera
  8. Choose a location for the device, or setup a new location
  9. Choose a room where the device will be installed (if your mini-split system has multiple indoor units installed in various rooms of the home then you will need one Sensibo device for each indoor unit)
  10. The app will then connect to your Sensibo device through Bluetooth
  11. Select your WiFi network from the list of available networks
  12. Enter your WiFi password
  13. If a firmware update is available the device will then perform an update
  14. Once the firmware is updated the Sensibo needs to synchronize with your mini-split system by taking the existing mini-split remote control, pointing it at the Sensibo Air and pressing the power button.  This allows the Sensibo Air to determine the manufacturer of your mini-split system, what commands the Sensibo Air will use to control it, and the current power state of your mini-split system
  15. You then have the option of adding a Sensibo Room Sensor.  More on the Room Sensor later

Features and Functions

The Sensibo Air provides complete control of a connected mini-split system including the ability to:

  • Select between different operating modes including cool, heat, fan only, dry, and auto
  • Select the set point of the mini-split system
  • Select between different fan speeds including quiet, low, medium low, medium, medium high, high, and auto
  • The ability to control the swing of the mini-split system including settings for stopped, fixed top, fixed middle top, fixed middle, fixed middle bottom, fixed bottom, range top, range middle, range bottom, range full, horizontal, and both.  Swing is the ability of horizontal flaps to move up and down to disperse the air in the room.
  • The ability to control the horizontal swing of the mini-split system including settings for stopped, fixed left, fixed center left, fixed center right, fixed right, fixed left right, fixed center, range center, range left, range right, and range full.  Horizontal swing is the ability of vertical flaps to move left and right to disperse air in the room
  • The ability to control the mini-split system’s lights including settings for on, off, and dim.
  • The ability to use geofencing to turn the system on/off when users arrive/leave
  • The ability to create schedules that can turn the system on/off, change the set point, change the fan level, and more.  Schedules can be setup for different times and on different days of the week so, for example, you can have separate weekday and weekend schedules.
  • The ability to create a timer that turns the mini-split system off after a specified period of time
  • The ability to view graphs of the temperature, humidity, and “feels like” temperature in the room where the Sensibo Air is located.
  • The ability to view a log of system events that have taken place; such as when the system was turned on and when the mode was changed
  • The ability to add additional people as users of the Sensibo app that can control the mini-split system
  • The ability to calibrate the Sensibo Air’s internal temperature and humidity sensors
  • The ability to control what notifications you will be sent including notifications of error conditions, general system operation, and promotional information about Sensibo sales and product offers

Sensibo also offers an advanced operating mode called “Climate React”.  Climate React offers the ability to, for example, setup dual set points so the system will automatically change the mode to air conditioning when it is too warm and change the mode to heat when it is too cold.  Climate react can turn the system on/off, change the operating mode, change the fan level, and change the set point in response to a change in the actual temperature, the “feels like” temperature, or the humidity.  So, for example, during a family vacation the mini-split system could be placed into dry mode when the humidity gets too high to avoid the possible growth of mold in a home.

Sensibo offers an optional, battery operated, Room Sensor that is used as an occupancy sensor in the room where the mini-split system being controlled by the Sensibo Air is located.  The Room Sensor is easily installed by choosing the Sensibo Air that it will be paired with, scanning the QR Code on the bottom of the device, and pulling the small plastic tab which will allow the replaceable, internal battery to begin powering the device. 

With the Room Sensor installed, the Presence React function can be configured in the Sensibo app to turn the mini-split system on/off and enable/disable Climate React when someone enters or exits the room.  The amount of time after motion is last detected, before the Room Sensor triggers that the room is unoccupied, is also adjustable.  Finally, the scheduler can be used to, for example, disable Presence React at night so the mini-split system in a bedroom can’t be turned off by a lack of motion when people are sleeping.

Sensibo also offers a subscription based “Sensibo Plus” program.  Sensibo Plus costs $4.99 per month or $2.99 per month when purchased on an annual basis.  Sensibo Plus offers:

·         Real-time weather and air quality notification that will help cut back on energy use

·         The ability to save money with energy-saving tips so your mini-split system is always set to efficiently Cool or Heat

·         Reminders to clean, or replace, your mini-split system’s filters on time to keep it operating efficiently

·         The ability to turn Climate React on, or off, based on geofencing

·         The ability to view graphs and logs on a weekly and monthly basis.  Without Sensibo Plus you can only view the graphs and logs for the current day

·         Perform a health check that analyzes the performance of your mini-split system

·         Get special promotional discounts from Sensibo

·         Sensibo Plus extends the warranty of your Sensibo Air by an additional year.

Integrations

Sensibo supports integrations with Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, IFTTT, Siri (Sensibo Air Only), and an open API so programmers can create their own integrations.  The Sensibo Air acts as a thermostat within the Amazon Alexa ecosystem.  This allows a homeowner to use simple commands including “Alexa, turn on the <room name> air conditioner” or “Alexa, increase the temperature in the <Room Name> by X degrees”.  

IFTTT can also be used to control the Sensibo Air.  IFTTT provides the ability to turn the connected mini-split system on/off, set the operating mode, adjust the set point, and set the fan level.

Using the Sensibo open API I created a Crestron driver to allow a Sensibo Air to be controlled from a Crestron smart home 3-Series or 4-Series processor.  The driver can be downloaded from my GitHub here.

Unlike the Ambi Climate, the Sensibo API doesn’t implement OAuth2 security but that doesn’t mean that the API isn’t secure.  To use the API you begin by obtaining an API Key.  To accomplish this you will need to use your username/password and login to the Sensibo web site.  There is a login link in the menu at the bottom of the main page of the web site.  You will then be presented with a screen that shows you your Sensibo devices.  In the upper left hand corner of the screen is a menu icon and selecting it will present you with an option to create an API Key.  The API Key is then included in a parameter field of the Crestron driver module and limits the driver’s access to only those Sensibo devices associated with the account used to create the API Key.

Next you will need to obtain the ID of your Sensibo Air.  In the lower right corner of the square that represents your Sensibo Air, when you are logged in on the Sensibo web site, is a 3 dot menu icon.  Pressing this displays a drop down menu.  Press the "Advanced" option on the menu and then choose "Advanced Info". The UID is the device ID of the Sensibo Air.  The Sensibo Air’s device ID is then included in a parameter field of the Crestron module.

The driver provides full control of mini-split system connected to the Sensibo Air including:

  • Power On/Off
  • Changing Modes
  • Controlling Fan Levels
  • Controlling Swing
  • Controlling Horizontal Swing
  • Controlling the Mini-Split System’s Lights
  • Turning On/Off Climate React
  • Setting the Mini-Split system’s target temperature
  • Providing Feedback on Temperature and Humidity measured by the Sensibo Air’s built in sensors

It is important to understand that not every mini-split system, heat pump, or Air conditioner that will be controlled by a Sensibo includes every option included in the module.  It is up to the programmer including the driver in a Crestron program to only expose the options available for the homeowner’s mini-split system in the Crestron system’s UI.

Suggestions for Improvement

Overall the Sensibo Air is a well designed and easy to use product that can optimize the operation of a mini-split system.  The API allows the products to be integrated with an overall smart home platform.  However, there is one way, I think, the product could be improved.  Climate React needs a third set point that can be programmed to change the operation of a mini-split system.  In this way the first set point can control when it is too cold and the mini-split system should change to heat mode.  The second set point can control when it is too warm and the mini-split system should change to cool mode.  The third set point would sit between the original two and provide the ability to turn on the mini-split system’s fan to improve the comfort of the people in the room but save money by not changing to cool mode.

Ambi Climate


Ambi Climate offers two products for controlling mini-split systems, which are operated by a remote control:

  • Ambi Climate Mini
  • Ambi Climate 2

Ambi Climate provided me with both an Ambi Climate Mini and an Ambi Climate 2 to evaluate for this article.

The two models offer the same functionality.  The primary difference between them is size.  While the Ambi Climate 2 is not very large (approximately 4-1/4” wide x 3-1/8” high x 1-5/8”deep), the Ambi Climate Mini is a fraction of that size.  In addition, while the Ambi Climate 2 is designed to be placed on a table or shelf, the Ambi Climate Mini can, in addition, be mounted on a wall.

One other important difference between the Ambi Climate Mini and the Ambi Climate 2 is the lifetime operating cost of the two models.  While the Ambi Climate Mini is slightly less expensive than the Ambi Climate 2, the Ambi Climate Mini requires a subscription to access Ambi Climate’s smart AI features after an initial 2 month trial period.  A lifetime subscription is included with the Ambi Climate 2.  The subscription is not expensive, at $2.99 per month, and I understand that companies need a continuing income stream to support the cost of their back end cloud platform.  But it is important to understand that this fee exists and including it as part of a purchasing decision.

Both models are aesthetically pleasing with an IR window on top, a white plastic body, and a wooden base.  Both Ambi Climate models control mini-split systems by sending IR commands to the device in the same way the mini-split system’s remote control does.  Because of this Ambi Climate devices can only work with mini-split systems that include discrete commands for different functions; such as power on/off. 

Included with each product is a power cord, plug-in power supply, and a brief getting start guide (a full user manual is available here).  The Ambi Climate Mini also includes a wall mounting bracket.

Setup

Setup is very simple (Note: the following was done on an iPhone.  The process for Android devices may be slightly different)

  1. Download the Ambi Climate app from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store.
  2. Provide permission for the app to send you notifications
  3. Provide permission for the app to use your location.  The app uses your location to create a geo-fence around your home.  Traveling outside the geo-fence will automatically trigger away mode that will set back the operation of your mini-split system to save energy
  4. Create an account
  5. Choose the Ambi Climate device you have purchased from a list and add it to your account
  6. Validate the location of your Ambi Climate device on a map for the creation of a geo-fence
  7. Enter a name for this location
  8. Enter the room where the device will be installed (if your mini-split system has multiple indoor units installed in various rooms of the home then you will need one Ambi Climate device for each indoor unit)
  9. Plug in your Ambi Climate device.  The device should be located between 6 and 12 feet of the mini-split indoor unit it will interface with.
  10. Connect the Ambi Climate device to your home’s WiFi network.  When first plugged in the Ambi Climate will broadcast a WiFi SSID.  You will need to connect your smart phone, or tablet, to this SSID, select your home network’s SSID from a list of available WiFi networks, and finally enter your WiFi password.  Once this process has been completed, the Ambi Climate device will connect to your home network and register itself with the Ambi Climate cloud service.  The registration process takes around 2 minutes.  As part of this process you will also be asked to provide permission for the Ambi Climate to discover other devices on your network.  This is simply an iOS permission for the device to connect to the local WiFi network.
  11. To pair your Ambi Climate device with your mini-split system you simply need to select the mini-split system model and remote control model that your Ambi Climate will interface with.  Ambi Climate says on their web site that “Ambi Climate products support almost any remote-controlled air conditioning or heat pump systems”.  They also provide a tool on their web site for checking if your min-split system is compatible with their products. 
  12. Once you have selected your mini-split system, the Ambi Climate device will validate that it has control of the mini-split system.

The setup process really only takes a short period of time to complete.  The most important thing to remember is to make sure you have the manufacturer/model of your mini-split system along with the model number of the system’s remote control.  The model number of the remote control can typically be found on the underside of the remote.

Features and Functions

Ambi Climate provides a wide range of options for controlling your mini-split system:

  • Comfort Mode – In Comfort Mode Ambi Climate learns what temperature/humidity combinations you find comfortable, under what conditions you aren’t comfortable, and then automatically makes adjustments to your min-split system to keep you comfortable.  The system starts with a basic model and using the app you can provide feedback as to whether you are comfortable, or not.  Over time the system will redefine the model to fit your individual preferences.
  • Temperature Mode – In Temperature Mode you select a target temperature for your room.  Ambi Climate then uses AI and machine learning to optimize the operation of your mini-split system based on the temperature/humidity of the room and how your min-split system is affected by changing environmental conditions outside your home.
  • Away Mode – In most HVAC systems away mode is simply a temperature setback to save energy when you aren’t home.  Ambi Climate goes beyond that by allowing for thresholds to be set for heating, cooling, or humidity when you are away.  For example, in a humid environment a homeowner might set back their air conditioning system to save energy while they are away.  However, this might result in high humidity levels in a home that could lead to the growth of mold.  In Away Mode the Ambi Climate can monitor the humidity level and, if needed, use the air conditioning as a dehumidifier to reduce the amount of moisture in the air.
  • Manual Mode – In Manual Mode your system is controlled by simply setting a target temperature set point along with any other features your mini-split system may offer, such as the fan speed, louver angle, etc.  Manual mode does not leverage any AI or smart features offered by the Ambi Climate
  • Off Mode – This allows you to simply turn off your mini-split system.  There isn’t a corresponding On Mode as selecting any of the above modes will turn the mini-split system on, if it is off.

The Ambi Climate app offers a number of other additional features

  • Full control of a mini-split system including choosing one of the above operating modes, fan level, swing, etc.
  • The ability to choose how the Ambi Climate AI will control your environment to maintain your comfort
  • The ability to create timers.  For example, you can create a time when your mini-split temperature will be set back during the night.  Timers can be triggered at a specific time and on specific days of the week.  They can trigger a specific mode to be selected and the operating parameters of that mode; such as a specific temperature set point when Temperature Mode is selected.
  • User Management – the ability to add additional users to the system
  • Analytics – For those that want to dig into the details on the operation of their mini-split system, Ambi Climate offers a wide range of ways to examine the data.  There are graphs of AC run time, average AC set point, temperature and humidity, and more.  You can also dig into the details of how the system knows whether you are comfortable, or not.
  • Geolocation – Ambi Climate can automatically set back the connected mini-split system when you leave home, and restore it to normal operation when you arrive home, using geofencing and the GPS on your smart phone.  The system is designed to support multiple users so it won’t set back the min-split system until every member of a family has left the house and will restore normal operation when the first family member returns home.  There is a complete article on the process of setting up geolocation in the Ambi Climate knowledge base here.

Integrations

Ambi Climate supports integrations with Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, IFTTT, and an open API so programmers can create their own integrations.  For example, the Ambi Climate Alexa skill supports commands for providing comfort feedback to the Ambi Climate AI system by saying “Alexa, tell Ambi Climate it’s too warm in <room name>” or “Alexa, tell Ambi Climate it’s a bit cold in <room name>”.

Similarly through IFTTT you can select the operating mode of the Ambi Climate device, provide comfort mode feedback, and more.  For convenience Ambi Climate has provided a wide selection of pre-made IFTTT applets.

Using the Ambi Climate open API I created a Crestron driver to allow the Ambi Climate to be controlled from a Crestron smart home 3-Series or 4-Series processor.  The driver can be downloaded from my GitHub here

The Ambi Climate open API requires OAuth2 authentication.  Normally this is a showstopper when writing a Crestron driver because a full OAuth2 implementation requires a port forward on the homeowner’s router to the Crestron processor; a significant security risk in itself.  Fortunately, Ambi Climate allows a user to create their OAuth2 access token through a website form instead of having to programmatically support callbacks by adding port forwards to the router on the homeowner’s network.  The form for creating the access token can be found here.

Ambi Climate has not completely removed the complexity of implementing the OAuth2 protocol.  Their access token expires after 40 hours and the driver software needs to implement a token refresh process or it will lose the ability to communicate with the Ambi Climate device.  I chose to simply implement a timer that refreshes the token any time the processor is restarted and after every 24 hours of operation.  I hope that this will prove reliable.

The Ambi Climate API includes rate limiting that limits the number of API calls 20 during any 10 minute period.  A programmer using the Crestron driver I wrote, or any other driver based on the API, needs to keep this in mind.  For example, a basic up/down arrow interface to adjust the temperature set point that sent a new set point to the Ambi Climate on each button press could fairly easily exceed the API call limit.  In writing the Crestron driver for the Ambi Climate I limited the functionality I provided in the driver because of this. 

Suggestions for Improvement

Overall the Ambi Climate Mini and Ambi Climate 2 are well designed and easy to use products that can optimize the operation of a mini-split system.  However, there are a couple of ways I believe the product could be improved.

  1. It is a pet peeve of mine that when you run an app on a table it should be able to operate in landscape mode. Many people, including myself, have keyboards attached to their tablets and an app that is locked in portrait mode is a pain to use.
  2. While this won’t impact most users the Ambi Climate API needs improvement.  First, the API documentation is incomplete and doesn’t fully document the protocol.  Without support from Ambi Climate it would have been exceedingly challenging to develop the Crestron-Ambi Climate driver I wrote.  Second, none of the API calls return feedback on the new state of the Ambi Climate after a command has been acted on.  To implement a driver properly would require a second command to obtain the Ambi Climate’s status after any command is sent.  This halves the number of commands that can be sent before the rate limit is exceeded.  As mentioned above, implementing a temperature set point using up/down arrow buttons on a touch panel could also exceed the rate limit.  I understand the desire to limit API calls so the Ambi Climate cloud server doesn’t become overloaded.  But, given the current state of the API the limit is very restrictive.

Conclusions

Both the Sensibo and Ambi Climate provide a way for a homeowner to better control their mini-split system.  Ambi Climate offers more intelligent control but this feature comes at the price of a subscription with the Ambi Climate Mini.  Sensibo offers an optional subscription.  But, unlike the Ambi Climate subscription, it is optional; and no “must have” features are lost if the subscription isn’t purchased.

For the integrator, the Sensibo API offers much simpler, and complete, control of the customer’s mini-split system.

 


Wednesday, October 27, 2021

What Do Connected Home Manufacturers Have Planned for Matter Protocol Adoption?

My latest blog post, "What Do Connected Home Manufacturers Have Planned for Matter Protocol Adoption?" was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

https://restechtoday.com/what-do-connected-home-manufacturers-have-planned-for-matter-protocol-adoption/

Below is a copy of the article.  

In my last article I looked at the various protocols used for communications by smart home devices.  At the end of the article I touched upon the new Matter protocol (formerly Connected Home over IP - CHIP).  To review:

  • The Matter protocol is being backed by a wide range of companies including Amazon, Apple, Google, and Samsung SmartThings.  These companies have recognized that it is in their best interest to have IoT devices that are compatible with all of their platforms.
  • Matter is being developed under the umbrella of the CSA and will be royalty free; which should keep the price of IoT devices that use the Matter protocol low.
  • Matter is being developed as an open source software project
  • Matter won’t immediately make all other protocols obsolete.  In fact it builds on top of some existing smart home protocols including Thread. There is ongoing work to allow existing smart home owners to integrate new devices that incorporate the Matter protocol into their existing smart home ecosystems

The first products that incorporate the Matter protocol were supposed to be released during the fourth quarter of 2021.  However, the release of products has been delayed until 2022. 

With the above in mind I wanted to report more about the specific plans companies have for the adoption of the Matter protocol within their existing, and future, products.  Companies are notoriously secretive about their future plans so I knew this would be a challenge. 

Silicon Labs

Silicon Labs has strong expertise in the wireless protocols supporting Matter (Thread, WiFi, and Bluetooth) and offers a range of Matter-compatible software and development tools. More than 15 million IoT gateway products developed using Silicon Labs' Series 1 and Series 2 wireless solutions will be Matter-compatible once it is approved for market availability.  Silicon Labs is advancing the development of Matter as one of the largest code contributors on GitHub, having provided about 20% of the code that is in its SDK. This makes Silicon Labs the third largest contributor of code overall, and the largest contributor of any semiconductor company.  This year, Silicon Labs also released the Unify SDK to enable other protocols to bridge to Matter. Starting in 2022, Silicon Labs is planning to fully integrate Matter as part of its Gecko SDK and Simplicity Studio software to provide the same level of best-in-class developer experience as other protocol stacks. Silicon Labs Matter solution is designed to enhance the connected product experience across major ecosystems including Amazon Alexa, Apple HomeKit and Google.

Espressif Systems

Espressif Systems manufactures the ESP line of IoT development boards that many smart home products are based on.  Not only does Espressif manufacture the boards, they provide the underlying firmware for their boards so companies that use them in their products can focus on writing the software necessary to address the business problem their product will solve and not waste time writing low level code to, for example, implement a communications protocol.

I reached out to Espressif to see what their plans are for supporting the Matter in their IoT boards as this will be a major step in allowing smart home product manufacturers to easily build Matter protocol support into their products. 

Espressif has announced that their new ESP32-H2 will include an 802.15.4 radio, Bluetooth LE, and support for Zigbee and Thread protocols.  These are all foundations of support for Matter.  In addition, according to Ke SUN at Espressif, they will release a full SDK (Software Development Kit) that supports the Matter protocol in the first quarter of 2022.

Professional Smart Home Manufacturers

One of the primary reasons I was looking forward to attending this year’s CEDIA conference was to talk to people at the three dominant professional smart home companies about their plans for supporting the Matter protocol.

I knew I had a much better chance of uncovering some hint about their future plans for possibly supporting the Matter protocol through an in-person discussion at a trade show vs. simply contacting their press relations departments.  Unfortunately, all three companies decided not to attend CEDIA due to the risk of the COVID-19 Delta variant. 

I did follow-up and contact all three companies through their press relations departments.  Unfortunately, I did not receive a reply from any of them.

Z-Wave Alliance

I contacted a number of companies that currently manufacture smart home products that leverage Z-Wave as the protocol in their products.  Again, none of these companies was willing to talk about their specific plans for adopting the Matter protocol in their existing products, or in products that they plan to develop in the future.  However, I was able to talk with Mitch Klein, executive director, Z-Wave Alliance and Director of Strategic Partnerships at Silicon Labs.

I posed three questions to Mitch about the future of Z-Wave with the introduction of the Matter protocol and his view on how things will play out in the future.

  1. What do you see as the competitive advantages of Z-Wave over Matter?

“It helps to have 20 years of development and successful installations; an ecosystem of hundreds of millions of devices already deployed; and over 90% of the monitored security panels leveragingZ-Wave.

That said, one cannot really compare the two apples to apples – each brings different value to the smart home ecosystem. In fact, we see the addition of Matter to the smart home ecosystem as less of a competition to Z-Wave and other protocols, and more of an overall opportunity for Z-Wave and the smart home. The promise and focus of Matter is on enabling device interoperability, but this will not happen without the ecosystem of hundreds of millions of already-existing Z-Wave devices.

One of the keys to Z-Wave’s success within the smart home for over two decades has been the utilization of the Sub-GHz band instead of opting for other frequency bands which have become increasingly more crowded over the years. Operation within the Sub-GHz band allows Z-Wave devices to avoid interference and dropped packets for consistent, reliable performance.  Z-Wave’s expertise operating within the Sub-GHz range coupled with the fact the majority of the other protocols opted to perform at higher frequency ranges is one of the clearest ways Z-Wave can help balance out a smart home network.”

  1. It is my understanding that Z-Wave devices can coexist with Matter when a Z-Wave hub manufacturer implements the ability to assign Matter compatible, virtual IPv6 addresses to each Z-Wave device connected to the hub.   I expect that Samsung/SmartThings, as a prominent member of the CSA, will certainly be doing this. I'm very interested in what you are hearing from other hub manufacturers about their plans for implementing Matter compatible, virtual IPv6 addressing in their hubs.

“Matter requires a border router or bridge to connect a Thread device to a WiFi device, and we will similarly see bridges into Z-Wave on Matter. How this bridging will be deployed will depend on the manufacturers. Bridging may be deployed on a gateway, an edge device, or in the cloud. All options will be available as the various working groups establish the necessary API’s and requisite roadmaps for the future. A Z-Wave to Matter bridge solution will ensure that all existing and future Z-Wave devices are interoperable with future Matter devices; in fact, the success of Matter will be dependent on the successful integration of Z-Wave and other existing platforms being included in the Matter deployment to ensure no products or systems go “dark”.  At Z-Wave Alliance, we see Matter as a benefit to the marketplace and have exciting things coming to Z-Wave this year both in new generation silicon and hardware security and bridging and software building blocks.”

1)      Z-Wave Long Range is a very complementary technology to Matter as Matter is currently focused on short range communications and Z-Wave Long Range fills a gap.  However, that isn't the case for regular Z-Wave.  What is the longer term future of regular Z-Wave in a world with Matter?

“It’s true that Matter is currently focused on short range communication, but this is not an either/or situation – both Matter and Z-Wave and the Sub-GHz layer are essential components of a well-rounded smart home ecosystem.  As such, Z-Wave devices won’t stop working when Matter devices hit the market. They will work in cooperation with many other parts of the IoT protocol ecosystem, likely landing in hub devices to bring extended connectivity and choice to consumers.

We will see demand driven by Matter, but interoperability, as well as forwards and backwards compatibility has been the mission of Z-Wave and part of our vision since its inception.  We continue to see manufacturers choose Z-Wave because of our expertise, diversity in ecosystem, performance, interoperability regardless of software updates or improvements, and security.  In fact, by bringing down end user and developer barriers in IoT, we will see new applications and services start to leverage IoT – and new areas both within and outside the smart home market will grow as a result.

A rising tide lifts all ships: Matter is about technology across systems and Z-Wave brings forwards and backwards compatibility and interoperability across hundreds of million so devices from security to lighting, and already works with the biggest IoT brands on the market today including Amazon, Apple, Google, and more.”

Level

Level manufactures innovative smart locks that leverage Apple’s HomeKit framework.  Given that Apple is primary member of the Matter working group I was very curious as to how a company that manufactures products based on Apple HomeKit viewed the Matter Protocol.  I reached out to Level and received the following response from Level’s CTO (Chief Technology Office) Ken Goto:

"Level is already a member of the Matter working group. We’ve been a member since it was CHIP two years ago. Level has been following Matter since its beginnings as Project CHIP. The opportunity to build a hardware platform once and have it be capable of participating in all the major smart home ecosystems from Apple, Google and Amazon among others is definitely a huge plus — Both from a manufacturer’s perspective in SKU cost reduction, and time to market. It’s also great for the end consumer to minimize all the cognitive challenges that come with figuring out “which version” they need. That being said, for a small company the true value will be after Matter becomes widely adopted and all the home platforms roll out support. Until then it would likely be the larger companies that begin to test the platform. For Level we are fully Matter hardware compatible and will update our firmware for all our devices past and present when Matter is ready for broad consumption."

Conclusions

I think Ken Goto did a great job summarizing how the rollout of the Matter protocol will impact the smart home industry.  I expect we will see product announcements from Apple, Amazon, Google, and Samsung SmartThings in the first quarter of 2022.  Once these dominant manufacturers release updates to existing, and new products, that incorporate the Matter protocol it will only be a matter of time before smaller manufacturers jump on the bandwagon with their own product announcements.

Whether the professional smart home manufacturers decide to allow integrators and homeowners to easily include products that communicate using the Matter protocol into their ecosystems is a bigger question.  Each of these companies makes a great deal of money selling products that off-the-shelf, IoT products with Matter would compete with.  So the future of products that use the Matter protocol is, unfortunately, much less of a sure thing in professionally installed smart homes.