Home Automation With Apps and APIs – The Next Level

By | November 3, 2016

The acquisition of Nest – the smart thermostat manufacturers – by Google in 2014, for a whopping sum of $3.2 billion, was one of the many indicators of the recent burgeoning interest in home automation. In Europe alone, the total number of ‘smart homes’ is likely to reach 45 million by 2020 (in essence, 1 out of every 5 households). North America is also expected to make rapid strides in the home automation sector – with more than 46 million ‘connected homes’ by the turn of the decade. Let us here analyse some key points of interest about home automation with apps and APIs:

Need For Home Automation APIs

In 2016 Q3, around 363 million smartphones were shipped globally, according to an International Data Corporation report. There is a pretty apparent trend among households in developed countries to establish a ‘smart ecosystem’ overall – one in which they will be able to control common home appliances – lights and television and thermostats – with their smartphones. And that, in turn, explains the growing popularity of home automation applications. Downloads of this category of apps have been steadily rising over the last couple of years or so. Gartner has predicted that 1 out of every 4 households will use mobile digital assistants like Siri, Cortana or Google Now to manage their ‘integrated homes’.

There is, however, one significant roadblock in the path of home automation with mobile apps alone. Usually, for each ‘smart home appliance’, there is a different set of applications. The apps for different appliances differ from each other – since they are made and launched by separate vendors and/or have separate platform compatibility standards and technological requirements. All of this makes app-based home automation slightly complex – with a fairly large section of the global population (who CAN afford it) preferring to shy away from it.

The next-generation of home automation (Home Automation 2.0, if you like) looks to address this issue – with the help of custom application program interfaces or APIs. These APIs serve as a technology and manufacturer-independent common platform – something like a dashboard – through which people can control their smart homes. Putting it in another way, home automation APIs add a uniformly integrated layer of functionality, which makes the task of managing home appliances easier than ever. The software tools have enabled people to move beyond network protocol barriers, and get all their smart devices interconnected.

What Functions Do Home Automation Apps and APIs Perform?

Practically all types of everyday, commonplace tasks…and then some more. From home entertainment and security, to lighting controls and other smart device management – apps have evolved enough to get into a myriad of home automation activities. A recent study found that, in the North American market, integrated and entertainment controls (with a 30%+ share) is the most common form of connected home functionality. It is followed lighting controls (26%), security controls (24%), HVAC controls (20%). Managed automation systems have emerged as the most popular, with interest in mainstream automation and luxury automation also increasing. The only type of home automation that seems to be losing out on user-interest is DIY automation.

With open-source, fully extensible and vendor-neutral API connectors, the scope of smart home automation is likely to expand manifold over the foreseeable future. Temperature scheduling of thermostats, instant notifications of door openings, sensor-managed lights and voice commands for activating devices/appliances are all within the realms of possibility. The driving factor behind all of these would be a secure, robust Internet of Things (IoT) setup for the home.

Internet or Intranet?

With apps and APIs coming to dominate the home automation scenario, security becomes a topic of immense importance. The escalating number of cyber threats and hacks is a harsh reality – and households, understandably, are on the lookout for automation systems that do not compromise personal or professional information (when we are talking about workplace automation) in any way. This preference is giving rise to yet another form of IoT for homes – this time, it is not the ‘Internet of Things’, but the ‘Intranet of Things’.

Leading home automation solution providers (e.g., openHAB) give users the final control on whether remote access of home is allowed or not. Homeowners can also decide on the amount and nature of personal data that would be exposed to the cloud. In case a person opts to keep everything in a ‘closed’ automation ecosystem, (s)he can very well do so – and that would be the precise definition of a ‘smart intranet for home’.

Roadblocks In The Path Of Home Automation

Lack of integration of home automation apps used to be a significant inhibitor in the growth of the consumer segment of this market. While APIs have considerably eased out that pain, other issues still remain. In the United States – easily the market with the highest smart home technology adoption – around 70% of households are not sure about the availability of smart home systems (i.e., from where they should purchase). The price barrier is also an important factor. According to a Harris Poll-Nielsen report, nearly 90% of respondents stated that home automation was ‘expensive’. As apps and APIs for smart home management becomes more mainstream, the costs should gradually come down.

Other factors standing in the way of smart homes include the general complexity of the existing systems. On top of that is the general (and understandable) unwillingness of users to handle separate proprietary applications for each appliance. APIs, thankfully, tackle this problem in an effective manner – by establishing a common platform for interaction of smart devices, technology solution providers (i.e., the home app developers) and third-party data sources. As API-usage grows, Home Automation 2.0 will thrive.

SDKs and Community Support

NXP offers a software development kit (SDK) based on Apple’s HomeKit framework. The importance of such SDKs for custom API development for homes is immense. Mobile app developers typically use these resources to come up with user-friendly applications that can integrate and manage a large number of home appliances and devices. The devices can also be made to interact effectively. For example, the brightness of a room’s light can depend on (and adjusted by) the home theater system present there.

Another interesting trend is the move towards open-source home automation systems with strong community support. With reliability being a persistent point of concern, it is certainly advisable for households to avoid depending on the services of a single company, and opt for a system that has a robust community. That adds an extra layer of reliability, and also makes troubleshooting (as and when required) easier.

How Do APIs For Home Automation Work?

A unified, integrated platform for home automation can very well be referred to a ‘system of systems’ – since its main purpose is to enhance and automate the functionalities of smart devices (and not replace them, in any way). Following a simplistic explanation, APIs help developers to code home automation standards on the cloud – which can be called the ‘Smart Home Cloud Platform’. Push notification systems are created, and the same are triggered to the smartphones of users – corresponding to specific home activities (e.g., the door opening).

The use of APIs for home automation holds out advantages for the customers as well as corporate houses. The former receives an integrated, all-encompassing platform for managing their smart homes, while companies get new business opportunities. To cite an example, a weather company can supply insights on the basis of the information generated by a smart thermostat.

Smart Hardware In A Race Against Time

The evolution of smart devices over the last half a decade has been pretty much amazing. Even so, these hardware components have traditionally struggled to keep up with the pace of software development for home automation. As such, there is still a mismatch – and an unwanted rigidity, when it comes to the deployment of a ‘smart activity’. There is no way to, say, change the rate at which water is being warmed – or the lights to become more energy-saving – or the home security system ‘understanding’ the reason behind the arrival of the homeowner (a quick visit to pick up something is different from a return from work, for example). The settings of smart home tech can, of course, be changed…but that involves manual overriding. Artificial intelligence (AI) has a long way to go in this context.

Common Apps and APIs For Home Automation

Now that we have some idea about smart homes and the purpose of mobile applications and interfaces in them – let’s turn our attention to some popular mobile software tools already available to users:

Home Automation Apps

  • SmartThings – Free iOS application; Serves as a smart remote control.
  • Revolv – Free home automation app (iOS/Android); Offers brand and protocol-independent device control.
  • Nest – Smart thermostat controller for iOS/Android; Adjusts temperature through smartphone.
  • Savant – iOS app to manage home security, entertainment, temperature and lighting; Works with Savant home automation system.
  • ADT Pulse – Home security app for iOS/Android; Used to arm/disarm alarm systems.
  • Loxone – Manages home media, heating, lights and smart alarms; another free app.
  • QuickSwitch for WeMo – Paid app ($1.99); Operates as a switch for Belkin’s WeMo device; can turn any pluggable appliance into a smart object.

HomeRemote, DirecTV and CtrlHome are some other highly-rated home automation apps.

Home Automation APIs

  • Pimatic Websocket – Utilizes the socket.io protocol (and plugins) to operate supported smart hardware.
  • QuickSet – Uses infrared/IP/HDMI portals to find and manipulate appliances.
  • BeagleSense – Smart wireless sensors to monitor air pressure, humidity, noise and air quality.
  • Myfox – Facilitates integration and development of smart security and surveillance devices.
  • Sensorist – Provides mobile app developers with data from compatible environmental sensors.
  • Indigo Domotics – Integrates home automation methods (control/management) in applications.
  • Okidokeys – Lets people lock/unlock doors through a specific mobile app.

Wink App, Dog Gateway, Lelylan, and of course, Apple HomeKit also feature among the top home automation APIs listed on Programmable Web.

With the home automation industry on the upswing, and custom apps and APIs supporting it – smart homes are no longer things that we only come across in big-budget sci-fi flicks. The scopes are endless in integrated, programmable homes. The onus is now on app developers and API providers to create easily implementable solutions that truly takehome automation to the next level.

Hussain Fakhruddin
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Hussain Fakhruddin

Hussain Fakhruddin is the founder/CEO of Teknowledge mobile apps company. He heads a large team of app developers, and has overseen the creation of nearly 600 applications. Apart from app development, his interests include reading, traveling and online blogging.
Hussain Fakhruddin
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