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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Automating the Home

Sometimes I start a post, and before I finish it, I find out something that completely turns it around. A week ago I wrote the following:

“One of the biggest sci-fi dreams of the fifties was the automated home. A collection of smart appliances that stepped beyond labour saving to intelligently manage the home environment.

The dream has evolved from the days of Robbie the Robot. Today ‘home automation’ generally refers to the networked control of lights, curtains and blinds, heating, home entertainment and security. Unfortunately it remains a reality only for the very rich or very geeky.

Remember the remote control that Ozzie struggled with on The Osbournes? Sadly that is all too often the reality when you try to implement some form of home automation on a budget. I tried a couple of years ago, using a system called X10 — one of the most popular (and cheap) home automation technologies. If you’re not familiar with it, it consists of a wide variety of modules that sit between the power supply and a device and control their operation by controlling the power. They talk to each other using signals sent over the power lines themselves, so there’s no complicated wiring involved.

It’s a beautifully simple idea, undone only by reality. Powerlines are not great conduits for data, because many devices connected to them generate ‘noise’. PCs, fluorescent lamps, motors and pumps all output considerable noise to the power system, sufficient in many cases to drown out the X10 signals.

My experiment didn’t last long before my wife started unplugging the X10 devices so that she could simply turn a lamp on. Home automation became labour generating rather than labour saving — not the idea.

It’s a shame, because I think the world is ready for some simple home automation. Look how quickly remote-control sockets have taken off. My in-laws have some so that they can control hard-to-reach switches. You can buy them in Tesco and B&Q.; They are pretty widespread.

I think it would only take a couple of moves for home automation to take off in a big way. Firstly, all of these little remote control socket kits should conform to a standard, so that they can be controlled not just from the supplied handset but from a PC or other device. Secondly, a big home store such as IKEA should start offering remote control as an option on all of its lamps and light-fittings. This way the cost of the control units becomes marginal. Those who just want to control a couple of sockets can do, and those (like me) who want to control their whole house, can make a start at a reasonable cost.”

One week later and guess what? Bumbling around B&Q; and I find the HomeEasy system. It’s been around for a couple of months but I hadn’t been down the right aisle. It appears to be cheap, robust, and flexible — everything I was after. Check out the full review at AutomatedHome.co.uk, but suffice to say, I’m buying.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The connected home reality

What I mean by the term ‘connected home’ is a loose network of interlinked appliances and gadgets that combine to make our lives easier, more secure, and more automated, and our media more accessible. The connected home has long been a dream of futurologists and science fiction writers, and over recent years it has increasingly become a reality for the super rich. In 2008 and 2009, I think it will start to become a reality for the rest of us.

The first component of the truly connected home, and the one that will drive much of the infrastructure for the others, is access to media. Be that the web, music, video, photo, or games, we are purchasing more and more media devices that conform to home network standards. Home media servers, network MP3 players, BluRay players with Ethernet ports, broadband video services, and online gaming-capable consoles. Making the most of these devices means a wired or wireless home network and a decent broadband connection. It also means having a server of some description at the centre of it all to store, provide, and control everything else.

The next component is security. Even though crime levels have fallen dramatically (42% in the UK since 1995), our paranoia levels have continued to climb. Security hardware, such as networked cameras, alarm systems, and baby monitoring devices, increasingly conform to IP-based network standards. Not only that, but prices are falling. Now there is little barrier to people integrating their home security and monitoring with their media systems. Streaming images of your kids and nanny to your office? Easy. Setting your alarm to text you when there is a break in? Cheap to do.

The final component is home automation. This has been the biggest dream of many futurologists. Not just a home that responds to you (lights that come on when you are in the room), or the environment (turning the heating on when the house temperature drops below a certain level at certain times), but a home that actively eases your life. For example, the robot vacuum cleaner. These devices are now available, in the UK, for less than £200. At John Lewis no less! Robot mowers are also available. Currently the price of a second hand car, there’s little doubt they too will fall in price. There’s no robot housemaid yet, and internet fridge isn’t yet a practical reality, but we’re getting there.

In the way that the last ten years has been dominated by smaller and smaller gadgets for the person, I think that the next ten years is going to be dominated by connected appliances for the home.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Ethernet: The most important technology you never hear about

Ethernet is one of those inventions that few people know about, and rarely gets discussed outside of businesses and the very geekiest of homes. If you are only vaguely familiar with it, you might know it as the square ports on the back of your broadband router. Yet Ethernet now underlies much of our global communications infrastructure, and its reach is only going to grow in the coming years.

Ethernet is a standard that defines the physical connections, and the electronic operations that allow groups of computers to communicate over cables made from either copper or optic fibre. Today your network in the office or at home almost certainly relies on Ethernet. But in the near future this reach will be drastically expanded.

Already much of the core infrastructure that drives the internet relies on Ethernet. Soon the mobile phone networks are going to be increasingly reliant on Ethernet too. It is fast becoming the universal language for digital communication, whatever form that communication may take. CCTV networks use it, music systems use it, games consoles use it, banks use it — almost every transaction we make in life will soon be sent over Ethernet.

The exact date on which Ethernet was invented is not clear, but many trace it back to a memo sent by Robert Metcalfe to his employers at Xerox PARC, the development powerhouse that also spawned many of the ideas now incorporated in the modern PC (the mouse, the graphical ‘windowed’ interface). Like many great ideas, his proposal was initially rejected. Well done that man for sticking with it.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

BBC iPlayer: Broadband Bottlen

I spoke briefly to an executive in the telecoms industry yesterday. I mentioned that many people I spoke to had seen a fall in broadband performance (based on anecdotal evidence). He suggested the biggest problem is the change in the type of applications that people are using, and cited the BBC iPlayer as an example. I don’t know why this simple thought hadn’t occurred to me but it makes perfect sense. I feel a bit daft having not jumped to that conclusion myself.

Even the simplest websites increasingly include sound and video clips, animated introductions, and large graphics, all of which take advantage of the increasing bandwidth available to users. That’s fine when just a few people are using those rich-media sites while the majority browse email or train times. But when the rich-media applications — such as the iPlayer — go mainstream, the experience degrades for everyone as the pipes clog up.

All the points I have made previously about our creaking national broadband infrastructure remain, but I now believe the problem is going to worsen quickly. All the more reason for us to begin the painful and expensive process of rolling out fibre optic connections to the home, before all the clever business models we have built on the availability of broadband data begin to collapse.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Spam Spam Spam Spam: The History of Spam

Quick pop in to the BBC Radio Manchester offices yesterday to comment on the 15-year anniversary of the term ‘spam’. It was coined on a user group to describe unsolicited marketing emails, and comes from the Monty Python sketch set in a cafe selling little else.

Yesterday was not the real anniversary of spam, which can apparently be traced back to a marketing executive for the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) almost fifteen years earlier. And some would argue there’s a big difference between that sort of legitimate business contact and the rather more illegitimate content that floods our inboxes today.

The problems stems from one simple fact: being a spammer is profitable. So profitable that the rewards outweigh the small risk of prosecution and the ignominy of being one of the most hated people in the world — certainly during the period between 8:30 and 9:30 that so many working people spend clearing their inboxes of junk.

As I was leaving the studio, another guest made a suggestion: charge 0.1p for every email sent. The economics are vague but the idea makes sense. The only way to stop spam is to make it economically unrewarding to send. This is of course hugely complicated, and punishes everyone — not just the offenders. But it is quite possibly the only way to halt the problem: the spammers are as technologically capable as those fighting the problem, and there is no prospect of international law-enforcement tackling the issue any time soon.

Tom Cheesewright