Jarvis, Please Lock the Front Door

Years ago, we put out a request for articles on home automation. About the time Eureka came out on TV, people wanted to have their very own SARAH (Self Actuated Residential Automated Habitat), and it seemed like the perfect time for nerds everywhere to make their houses smart. The problem was, although a few programs existed (MisterHouse for example), the hardware wasn't really reliable or highly available. The X10 company was about the only game in town hardware-wise, and it tended to be glitchy without much advantage over traditional switches.

In recent years, a glut of products have been dumped onto the market, all toting options for automated lighting, wireless switches and so on. Unfortunately, most were very closed and proprietary, forcing users to stick to a specific brand. That probably was the goal, but it backfired, because the concept of branding my house with proprietary hardware and software was anathema. Thankfully, times are changing, and the product that made me jump into the home automation pool with both feet is a surprisingly proprietary one: Amazon Echo (but, more on that later).

Wireless Communication

Several brands of home automation devices use standard Wi-Fi (2.4GHz) to communicate. At first glance, that seems like a good idea. Unfortunately, the 2.4GHz frequency is so cluttered, adding more devices might be counterproductive. It's also a high-bandwidth type protocol, which is just not needed for simple switching and communication.

Most home automation devices, regardless of brand, focus on the 900MHz spectrum. You might remember 900MHz from the days of cordless phones (not cell phones, rather the old cordless phones from the 1990s). For several reasons, 900MHz network devices have never really gone mainstream, which means the frequency isn't oversaturated. It also penetrates walls better, making it perfect for connecting devices around your home.

Unfortunately, everyone has been trying to become "the standard" in home automation, making the various brand names often incompatible with each other. When I decided to start using home automation devices, I wanted something that was compatible with the most products. For me, that meant SmartThings from Samsung. It supports the very common Z-Wave protocol and the ZigBee protocol, which is similar, but is based on an actual IEEE standard (IEEE 802.15.4).

Figure 1. SmartThings is my choice for the most flexible platform upon which to build.


Shawn Powers is a Linux Journal Associate Editor. You might find him on IRC, Twitter, or training IT pros at CBT Nuggets.