App-centric approach to home automation previewed at Pepcom

No need to worry when a ‘bot has your back.

Home automation is taking a step back from integration and interoperability. Judging by the the companies previewing products at the Pepcom Holiday Spectacular in San Francisco last week, the latest, shopper-friendly strategy is to turn smart phones into home control centers simply by crowding single-purpose apps together on a screen.

Three companies – DoorBot, Dropcam and Honeywell – were showing smart phone-networked home automation devices and a fourth – Kevo – takes the direct route to iPhones via Bluetooth.

DoorBot and Dropcam had different twists on video security cameras, but the setup, networking and business models were identical: connect to your home WiFi network, log into a proprietary cloud service and see your streaming video only on supported devices. The basic streaming service is free, with paid upgrades for storing video.

Honeywell showed a thermostat that will accept voice commands via smart phone. It also relies on a WiFi connection to its own free cloud-based service. That’s where the audio commands are interpreted and the interface to iOS and Android apps live.

Not surprisingly, given the reliance on relatively thirsty WiFi radios, all three need external power. Dropcam uses a USB connection for power, making it primarily an indoor cat. DoorBot is designed to replace doorbell buttons, which are typically connected to a low voltage power source, as are thermostats.

The Kevo door lock is battery powered and doesn’t rely on a network connection. To open or close it, you use a Bluetooth link paired with an iOS app or key fob. No Android app yet. One neat twist: you can send a temporary virtual key to a friend’s iPhone or a restricted key to your kid.

None of the products support Z-Wave or ZigBee protocols, or are capable of being networked into a central home control system. The two cameras might be hackable at some level, and the DoorBot’s cool form factor will make it worth a try.

The stovepipe approach to networking and control has its advantages. The products can be sold on a standalone basis and installed with nothing geekier than a screwdriver (well, installing a door lock is little more complicated than that). That’s a good approach for gizmos intended to be bought as holiday presents.

From a functionality standpoint, there is integration. All the products converge on a smart phone screen, which makes it handy enough. Until you want your door bell communicating with your thermostat – and you might some day – that’s sufficient for most consumers. Swapping (so far) unwanted interoperability for painless set up and management is a smart trade for a stocking stuffer.