In the Field with Pierre-Nicolas Cléré, director at Connected Technology
Pierre-Nicolas Cléré of Paris-based integrator Connecting Technology talks to Charlotte Ashley about how the home technology market has evolved over the past 25 years, and how the company continues to enjoy success around the world.
You’ve been at the helm of Connecting Technology for over 27 years now, what inspired you to start the company in 1991 and what developments have you witnessed in the residential technology industry during this time?
I often compare home automation to the UN – imagine 191 countries that do not speak the same language trying to communicate. When I started in the business, Polish spoke Polish and Russian. Russian spoke Polish, Russian and Croatian, Croatian spoke Russian, Croatian and English, and I spoke English. So I could communicate with Polish, but at what cost! Today, there are some common languages like IP, KNX etc. that facilitate dialogue – so it's simpler, and therefore cheaper.
In 1991, the smallest installation cost 200,000 euros. Today, we do much better for 4 times cheaper, largely thanks to the introduction of devices such as the smartphone and the iPad.
Does most of your work come locally in France or from abroad too? Do you see the company see expanding into any other markets around the world soon?
90% of our projects are in France or in the French overseas territories. But for two, three years, we have been working in England (London is the 4th French city!), Spain, the Maghreb, the Middle East (Dubai in particular) and even the US.
We also see a lot of English people in France, and Italians on the French Riviera. There's so much work for everyone that it's more about helping each other than competing.
“I often compare home automation to the UN – imagine 191 countries that do not speak the same language trying to communicate.”
What do you find is the most popular request you currently receive from clients? Why do you believe this service is so in-demand?
The customer wants the network first and foremost. WiFi – aka 4G, is their primary concern. I often tell this story: a couple and their children arrive at a hotel. The boss greets them and apologises: "We have a problem with the boiler and we don't have hot water." The family's a little upset, but gets over it. The boss then gives them the keycard saying: "Oh yes, I forgot to tell you, the WiFi is down too," – and now the family turns around.
WiFi is more important than hot water today. Following the network, we are asked for security, control of the windows, then technology for leisure, multi-room audio, then video and finally, the air conditioning/heating management. In the end I find the customer often says 3 things to you: "It's great, I have WiFi everywhere, we do not see a single cable and I don’t several remote controls anymore!”
How do you view customer awareness of what they can achieve with connected technology in the home in France? How can the market be educated more?
Today, home automation remains for the customer looking for management of lighting, shutters and heating. Yet they may sometimes have bought a Sonos speaker without knowing it was a connected object, and therefore it can become a cornerstone of their smart home.
We are members of CEDIA, but unfortunately it is not well known in France (mainly because of the language barrier – the French can be lazy in becoming bilingual!). We are also very actively involved in the French Home Automation Federation and participate in trade fairs.
The main way customers find us is through word of mouth – our clients introduce us to new clients. Secondly, they find us thanks to our extensive online presence and/or via our parent company, AV supplier Son-Video, which has around twenty stores across France. Finally, we have our unique showroom – showcasing over 100 home automation applications. If you have a Visa, you cannot leave empty-handed.
Tell us about one of Connecting Technology’s most interesting recent projects. What were some of the challenges you had to overcome and how did you do so?
We have completed over 150 large projects in the last 4 years with our ‘Kalitouch’ control system. We created this to be Control4-like and control from A to Z and most French decision-makers have chosen this solution to date.
Specifically, we just finished a 950m2 house south of Paris with about twenty video zones, more than 30 audio zones, lighting, heating, alarm, biometrics, home cinema, touch table – nothing is missing in this project. The owner is Celine Dion fan, so at their request, when she turns on the lights in her bathroom her favourite singer plays.
“The owner is Celine Dion fan, so at their request, when she turns on the lights in her bathroom her favourite singer plays.”
We do commercial work too, and right now we’re just finishing up a sports club spanning 2,000m2 in Paris complete with access management, light, images, sound, pool, Jacuzzi, sauna, Hammam, etc. and more than 2000 Dali transformers to manage!
On the pro side of the home technology industry there can sometimes be negativity towards IoT products, but your company clearly is very pro connected objects – do IoT products suffer from a ‘bad reputation’ or are we just in need of more product governance?
You can't go against history: IoT products are essential. Unfortunately, those who write the protocols for these products do not know what a connected object is. They make updates that modify the whole eco-system, which forget to acknowledge when you send an order – in short, it's a mess.
Nevertheless, how can we do without it? We offer our home automation expertise to these companies (through our own Kalimind/Kalitouch system), but there’s not always a SSII (computer engineering services company) to write drivers, protocols for the IoT. We are working with some manufacturers, such as Yamaha for MusicCast, with Bel Air Cinema for their server, as best we can.
Simple control via tablets, iPhones etc. using your own proprietary software is a staple of your work – what benefits does this bring over working with other options?
When we decided to start again from scratch our control software, I laid out 3 criteria: not making the client prisoner with a server that blocks the house, to be simple to use, and to be reliable without latency. We know that beyond 200 metres the user wonders what is happening. So not using the cloud for everything, writing in C++ software and a wear-resistant engine were essential. Today, adding a protocol to our inhouse system only takes a few hours, but some others can obviously require days of development and manpower.
How have you seen the market react to the influx of voice control products in the market, and what is your take on them?
Voice control is essential. We only user Google Home in France for the moment since Amazon and Apple have not yet ‘Frenchised’ it. I always say there's not a single way to control your house. I use touch, switches, sensors, voice, gesture, etc. in the showroom (and at my clients' homes). Each interface has its own qualities and faults. To launch a scenario, turn on a light, voice is good, but to schedule a recording on your box, touch is better, or even the remote control with buttons, as Control4 does so well. There is no perfect solution, there is a solution by use, and by user.
How easy is to hire technical staff with the necessary abilities to work at Connecting Technology? How much training is needed?
At Connecting, it’s important for technicians to feel valued. Two of my key staff members have been with me over 15 years.
As we have difficulty recruiting, we often take young people and train them on the job. And we never finish learning – I train myself at least twice a year on new techniques because it evolves so quickly.
What do you believe will be the next big integration trend in the next 5 years? What may drive it, and how can installers benefit?
If I look in the rear view mirror, I've been doing the same thing since 1991: driving lights, audio visual gear, heating etc. I do it better – the images are 4K HDR, the sound is multi-room, the prices have gone down, and I have a great smartphone. I may now know if I have a water leak, but I do the same thing as in 1991. Tomorrow – and this is what we are already doing – we are working on artificial intelligence (i.e. analysing behaviours, predicting situations, self-adapting technology, and more).
Pierre-Nicolas Cléré is sales director at Connecting Technology