Interoperability for Pros — Part 1

smart homeGoing back through old columns and notes from years past in the folders on my laptop is an enlightening experience. Looking back ten or more years is especially thought-provoking, mostly because I’m reminded of opinions and pronouncements I had made in which I was dead wrong. For example, there was a time when I thought home media servers would reach mainstream prices. Spoiler alert: they didn’t.

The home technology landscape has changed profoundly over the years, driven in part by ever-faster internet speeds. And there are plenty of positives that end users have gained from the progress. I reflect on how my new 75-inch LED TV was one-fifth the price of my prior 60-inch plasma TV. And yet, looking back, I still see things that we, whether industry professionals or end users (notwithstanding that all industry professionals are also end users on our off time), still struggle with.

Admittedly, we may struggle with them in different ways than we once did, but the struggle continues.
It underscores the truth of the expression, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” — the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Ten years ago, I was talking about the importance of ensuring interoperability amongst the devices you specify into an installation. It’s always been complex and required a lot of homework on the part of AV pros to navigate. Fast forward to today, and if anything, it’s even more complex due to the explosion of smart home devices and peripherals and the sheer number of brands that make them. Smart home products are marketed as simple and easy, but as experience has shown us, it’s seldom that simple.

What I’ve observed working with different smart home ecosystems and devices within them is that when a peripheral (camera, smart plug, etc) says, “works with,” there is nuance in what that really means. It boils down to two states: either the user experience is easy, or it’s not. An example of easy goes like this: with a no-name smart plug, I can say, “Hey Google, turn on the lamp,” and it does.

In a contrasting example, my garage door opener “works with Google Home,” but the user experience isn’t that simple. It may go like this: I tell Google to connect to the opener’s app, wait for that to happen, ask if the garage door is open or closed, tell it to either open or close the door, etc. This second example makes the exercise pointless. I might as well just open the garage door app on my phone and do it myself; it will be quicker.

Another flavor of “it’s not easy” is that “works with” can also mean that devices can control only some functions — not all. Which functions work and which don’t? Well, if it’s not in the product documentation, you’ll have to find out on your own!

It may sound churlish, but it sure feels like manufacturers have offloaded the responsibility of figuring out what works and what doesn’t onto AV pros and end users. That’s actually a point that my colleague, our category manager, brought when talking about smart home products. The often vague interoperability of various devices is a big stumbling block when evaluating new brands to distribute. If we can’t affirm to our resellers that this stuff works, we’re just setting ourselves up for problems down the road.

Since it’s ultimately down to us, the industry pros (and anyone interested in who happens to be reading this), I’ll lay out what you can do to minimize your headaches and maximize interoperability in your installation in the next installment.