Letter from America: Connect THIS, Connect THAT!

Having travelled a great deal around America the past few months, as well as over for a quick trip to Hong Kong and China, I’ve spoken with device and component suppliers, software firms, branded, OEM and ODM contract manufacturers, legacy brands, retailers, custom system professionals and consumers. During those trips a constant theme kept appearing in the conversations: “connected this” and “connected that”.

As we move into the “holiday selling season”, and with products such as the Amazon Dot and Google Home Mini among the most promoted and widely selling items in the literally billions of dollars (through both “bricks and mortar” and online sales channels), the definition of “connection” and what consumers expected kept coming to mind. Reflecting on my travels and braving the hordes on Black Friday, one begins to wonder about what everything is connected to.

On the surface, it would seem to be as simple as robust broadband and some tower-like, or hockey puck looking object that answers questions and initiates tasks, but for the custom specialist to keep ahead of the DIY market, the thought for this month is that it must be more than that.

Example One: “Connected How”, and “Connect with What?”

Today’s marketplace has no shortage of mesh routers and WiFi systems priced at consumer acceptable levels. If that’s the case, why do they need you? That’s a question I can answer from personal, first-hand experience. My typical suburban home is two-stories and about 3,000 square feet. Not that difficult to connect at first glance, but my wife the architect had it designed and constructed in a manner that was unintentionally unkind to wireless. When we rebuilt a 1950s home with thick walls and liberal use of wire mesh inside the walls, who could have predicted the havoc that, along with the twists and turns in the layout, would play with solid connections. For readers living in countries where the homes may well be considerably older or use more bricks and concrete than is typically allowed in earthquake-prone California, the issue may be even worse.

Sure, one could make do with a collection of under USD $100 routers or extenders, or go with the newer systems, but does the average consumer really know where to put them? Do they know that consumer products don’t permit the number of devices per access point that are needed in a “connected home”? One doubts it.

Indeed, that’s why I decided to practice what I preached on the recent trips and had a networking expert install an enterprise grade system that flawlessly works no matter how many devices are being used by the family along with the dozen or so drawing down bandwidth at any time in my office. All this while also talking to the connected lawn sprinkler timer on the outside of the house, on the other side of the lathe for the stucco, as well as a connected camera or two at the doors.

Take that scenario and model it to what your customers want and need, and compare it to the fact that it really isn’t a task to “do it yourself”. I should have been able to, but it took a real expert to make it work. Hmmm. THAT’S YOU! (Or at least it should be!)

Example Two: “Connect Where?”

My scenario above has some hints. A few of the connected devices are outside the walls of the home. Great, but that poses problems that you are best to solve and which a DIY-er would find problematic.

First, cameras, gate controls, garage doors, sprinkler timers and such may be said to be “wireless”, but unless they are nuclear powered (ok, or solar) there must be constant AC or a means to recharge the batteries. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case and long extension cords aren’t the answer. YOU can foresee and solve that problem. The DIY-er usually cannot.

And, as mentioned above, the location of these devices may in in a location where clever access point placement is needed. Site surveys, RF calculations and more are skills you have that are often underestimated or dismissed by a DIY-centric prospect, but an explanation such as those here proves your value.

A final “Connect Where” hint: The growth curve for “connected cars” and electronic vehicles means that in the garage they might need more than electrical power, they may need a “home base” for broadband power. Figure that situation into the plans.

Example Three: “Connect What” (Really?)

Yes, we all are dealing with “connected entertainment”, be it streaming audio or video. Yes, by now one trusts that you are all well versed in selling, provisioning/installing and maintaining lighting, blinds and HVAC systems and controls. However, as those fields also become “DIY-isised”, what are the next opportunities and how do we make a difference there, as well?

As seen at trade events back in the late summer, and moving into CES in January, more rooms are becoming “connected”. And, there are opportunities only we can make happen.

Smart ThinQ kitchen on display at show

A significant amount of attention will be focused on “connected kitchen”. It’s not only stove tops and ovens, but range hoods, laundry, dishwashers and more. While the manufacturers will claim interoperability, you know that won’t be the case. Some are Alexa-powered, some will be Google and some will have other or proprietary schemes. The trick isn’t just to plug it all in and download an app. That’s about the limit for DIY.

However, what if the stove, range hood, HVAC and air filter/purifier speak “different languages”? What if something, particularly something with a simple on/off switch as the range hood/exhaust has no automation at all? THAT is where you come in.

A common thread to remember will be IFTTT. While most devices have some native scheme, IFTTT seems to be the way that disparate devices will be unified. An example: You want the smoke detector to be able to turn off the burners on the connected range, turn on the exhaust hood, start or turn up the air purifier, and depending on the HVAC system, either shut off the fan and closer the dampers to prevent the spread of smoke, or switch the system to “fan”. Oh, and presumably call the fire brigade and the homeowners.

Easy to describe, but this proves the value of “custom” in a way that simple DIY devices can’t deliver. Particularly think of the non-connected, custom range hood that you can “connect” with a variety of devices and controls. “Connect What”? “Connected Kitchen”!

Look for home situations where individual products are connectable, but not interconnected out of the box. How about a “Connected Nursery”. There are “baby cams”, but have you come across the “connected baby scale”, the “connected sleeper”, the “connected thermometer inside a bottle” and more infant-oriented items?

All are on the retail shelves now. Great, but the average new parent can’t unify them or report them beyond their native app. And, if nothing else, these all add more devices to the network, and these are things have to have a more reliable connection that “consumer” WiFi systems can sometimes provide.

Yes, the “Connected Nursery”, the “Connected Kitchen”, the “Connected Garage”. You get the idea. Don’t be cowed by the growth of “connected things” flooding the retail world. Take a step back and ask yourself the questions you will be asked by prospects and clients, and which you might want to ask them: “Connect THIS”? “Connect THAT?”. Think about those connections and the end result will hopefully be a connection to more business and greater profits.

Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires magazine. You can contact Michael via the HiddenWires LinkedIn Group, follow him on Twitter @captnvid.