Control4 came up in a chat this week with some of my fellow GigaOMies. Like many companies lately, the home automation specialist seems to have gone app happy, and at CES launched an app store called 4Store that will be available later this year. In a statement, Control4 CEO Will West said that the app store would do for the smart home what Apple’s iTunes’s store has done for the smart phone.
Initially, I was skeptical. Do home automation and energy management platform providers really need to build their own app stores? Not necessarily, but then it occurred to me that Control4’s scheme might be a really, really good idea. Here are four reasons why:
1) Extensibility on your own terms: Control4 has its own app store and an iPhone app called My House UI (iTunes link) that essentially uses the iPhone’s networking capabilities as a proxy for accessing the home automation control unit. It’s a smart move that allows the company to give its customers a measure of convenience. However it’s Control4’s own app store that will imbue its platform with additional functionality and centralize control in a way that simply can’t be replicated by another “screen” like the iPhone (unless it acts as a dumb terminal). On the flip side, customers can extend and personalize their own systems to their liking, improving the chances that they’ll default to Control4 for more of their home control and energy management needs.
2) Stronger focus: Apple’s app ecosystem has its share of shortcomings, beyond the sheer number of underwhelming efforts that flood its store. But not every app store has to suffer the same fate. By its own virtue, Control4 can be much more focused on its core strength: home automation. This is an opportunity to help guide the quality of its store by building on its established partnerships and approve only those apps that offer genuine utility and that matter most to its customers. It may never have a catalog of tens of thousands of apps, but may not need to.
3) ZigBee: Control4 and several smart meter and home energy management systems support the standard, many times exclusively and at the expense of Wi-Fi (which the iPhone supports). Until Apple stuffs a ZigBee radio into its hardware (unlikely), the iPhone simply can’t “talk” directly to a growing ecosystem of smart energy and home area networking products. These are opportunities that only apps running on Control4’s platform and others like it can address and exploit.
4) Interoperability: An app store can also banish pesky interoperability stumbling blocks. A recent experience in trying to achieve “one remote” nirvana via the Consumer Electronics Control (CEC) standard (and I use the term loosely) over HDMI reminded me how one company’s definition of “interoperable” differs wildly from another. It turns out that using a handful of remotes to control a Panasonic plasma TV, Motorola cable box, Onkyo receiver and Sony Blu-ray player is infinitely preferable to trying to get CEC to work right.
With an app store, the onus can be placed device manufacturers to get their electronics and smart appliances to synch up with energy management schemes. Third parties can even come on board for some added revenue and provide enhanced capabilities, as in the case of the TED app available on 4Store. And all it takes is an SDK and an online storefront.