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Talk to your Home!

Talk to your Home!
An app like HomeKit lets you issue voice commands to control you
I dropped $149 on an Apple TV box last month so that I could test Apple’s HomeKit system that links app-controlled products throughout the house. That meant buying some HomeKit-compatible light bulbs, outlets, cameras, and other gizmos. I’m only about $300 into my poor man’s home automation system, but I really like the way it’s shaping up. The beauty of HomeKit is that you can control your home through Siri voice commands, when you are home or on the road. The future, it seems, has arrived.

Linking various HomeKit-compatible apps allows you to issue “macro” commands. Tell Siri, “Set my coming home scene,” and she’ll turn on the lights, unlock the door, and turn on some music. The system can be easily programmed to open the blinds, crank the heat, and brew coffee in the morning. The messages are encrypted so no one but your family knows when you are home and when you aren’t.

The lifestyle promised by smart home promoters 25 years ago is finally within financial of reach of most Americans. You don’t need a new home to live it. Make no mistake -- the widespread availability of these “after-market” smart home systems from Apple, Google, Nest, AT&T and others poses a major challenge for builders, whose home automation packages seem sterile and expensive by comparison.

The beauty of Apple TV and Google’s new wireless operating system, Brillo, is that they also connect to your music, photos, and videos – to your media, in other words. And since they connect your television to the Internet, the systems also hold out the tantalizing prospect of eliminating bills for cable or satellite television.

The saving grace for builders is that the key to making these wireless systems work is a strong home network. Builders would be wise to promote the availability of high-speed Internet connections in their homes. That may be more important than offering a hard-wired home automation solution that could quickly become obsolete. Old-fashioned hard-wired home automation systems, which may do a better job distributing audio and video signals, may still appeal to high-end clients. They are sometimes easier to use. Wealthy buyers may still want home automation systems with built-in security and speakers. But value-oriented homebuyers, including the new generation of first-time buyers, are likely to question paying for things they don’t need. If they do buy a home with an automation system, it better be flexible enough to sync with app-controlled products.

Some of these app-controlled products offer sexier lifestyle features than the home itself. My $250 Nest thermostat remembers the temperatures that I like and develops a program for me. My Foobot monitors for indoor air pollution and recommends remedial action. My smart grid washer and dryer tell me the best time of day to run. My sprinkler controller, connected to National Weather Service forecasts, recommends skipping a watering when rain is on the way. My smart doorbell shows me who is at the door, and allows me to talk with them, even when I’m not home.

Every month, new app-controlled products arrive on the scene. Window companies push apps that tell you when your windows are open and sucking heat or air conditioning from the house. Apps for garage doors provide the peace of mind of allowing you to check whether your child left the garage door open when he came home from school. Apps for your thermostat allow you to set temperatures even when you are away from home.

Moreover, the apps for these products increasingly connect to each other, allowing you to create macro commands. That takes away one of the major selling points of built-in home automation systems – the ability to join systems to create scenes.

Wireless home automation got a big boost a couple years ago when AT&T and Staples entered the market, with an emphasis on selling home security. But the introduction last year of competing wireless operating systems from Apple and Google is likely to take the category to another dimension. The advent of linked wireless systems could take some profit out of offering automation packages in new homes. At the same time, the trend makes it possible for builders at all price points to offer homes with strong tech backbones that can easily accommodate a new generation of wireless home controls.

Boyce Thompson is the author of 
The New New Home: Getting the House of Your Dreams with Your Eyes Wide Open, and the former Editorial Director of Builder Magazine.

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