A Mobile Ecosystem Slowly Grows Around Home EnergyKatie Fehrenbacher
Home energy management is still an early-adopter trend for most normal consumers, but as mobile operators and device makers get more involved in selling network access and special energy monitoring devices, the sector may hit the mainstream in a year or two. Several news items out of the Mobile World Congress (MWC), a mobile electronics show being held in Barcelona this week, indicate that 2011 or 2012 may be the tipping point—and the smartphone or tablet may be the controller that allows you to coordinate your thermostat with your life.
For example, chip company Texas Instruments announced on Feb. 14 a new Android software platform to help mobile developers create mobile devices with ZigBee connectivity. ZigBee is the dominant standards-based way to connect devices in the home, but to date, it's mostly been embraced by the power industry and utilities, instead of consumer electronics makers. There were only 100 certified ZigBee devices as of December 2010, but by creating a means to easily get Android devices to talk to ZigBee radios, all it takes to boost that number is getting the ZigBee radios inside Android devices and writing the apps that allow them to control home lights and air-conditioning.
The slow embrace of ZigBee by gadget and mobile phone makers has made room for the proprietary home wireless standard Z-Wave, which basically uses chips made by one vendor: Sigma Designs (SIGM), which acquired Z-Wave chipmaker Zensys in 2008. Both Verizon (VZ) and Motorola (MSI) have turned to Z-Wave as the first communications technology for their inaugural smart home efforts, because as Verizon execs John Valdez and Jack Eastman told me in an interview recently, Z-Wave is "more readily available" than working with the utility-embraced home wireless standard ZigBee.
As the mobile development ecosystem grows around ZigBee—and continues to mature around the home energy space—and more chipmakers and software companies launch ZigBee development tools, I expect ZigBee, which is an open standard, to surpass Z-Wave, a proprietary standard, in the home. The history of networking has taught us that an open standards-based approach tends to win out.
Mobile Developers for Energy
Both the smart energy home and the greater smart grid sector have been looking to recruit mobile developers lately. SmartSynch, a company built off of working with cellular operators for the smart grid, announced last month that it will leverage Qualcomm's (QCOM) Brew MP platform to develop smart grid apps in-house as well as welcome third-party developers. Those apps could run on the smart meter modules using Qualcomm's 3G chips that SmartSynch intends to have on the market later this year.
Both Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT) have looked to work with third-party developers for their home energy software, and Google opened up its API for PowerMeter last year, though both these platforms appear to have limited success to date.
It's becoming increasingly clear to the smart grid sector how much it needs the mobile companies and mobile developers. A variety of smart home energy startups have shifted strategies recently, after discovering consumers want to use the mobile devices they already have to mange their home energy consumption, rather than buy a high-end, dedicated home energy device. Many of the home energy apps getting built are compatible with the iPhone and iPad.
Broadband Smart Energy Home
The phone companies also see growing value in the smart energy home. AT&T (T), Verizon, and Comcast (CMCSA) want to offer energy management as a value-added service bundled with their Internet, voice, and video products. They have already put out the expense of building out the networks, so for relatively little, they can add energy tools to help reduce churn (when one service provider leaves the company for a competitor). Vendor NEC announced a home gateway product at MWC on Feb. 14, intended to help mobile operators launch home energy services for their customers.
Verizon is also looking to leverage its 3G network for home energy, and has placed a sizable bet on startup Consert, which has raised $17.7 million in backing from Verizon Ventures, Qualcomm, Constellation Energy (CEG), and GE Energy Financial Services (GE). Consert has built a home and building energy management system off Verizon's 3G network to curb consumption of individual homes' HVAC systems and water heaters. Consert aggregates those savings to offer utilities the equivalent of a "virtual peaker plant." This week, Consert announced its first commercialization agreement with utility Wake Electric.
Mobile operators, and Verizon in particular, were all over Distributech, the smart grid conference, last week. Verizon launched a cloud-based meter data management service with software maker eMeter. As Andres Carvallo, chief strategist at Grid Net, told me recently, "There's a party going on around the smart grid, and the mobile operators have realized they want to get into it."
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