Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Need an IT manager for my connected home!

I am not really an early adopter. I tend to integrate new products and technologies when my needs change.
Until recently, my electronic devices were dumb and mute, just performing what I wanted to, either working or not.

In this new era of hyper connected homes though, everything becomes exponentially more complex as you add more connected devices. Since I have started my business, I had also to use cloud-based apps and services to expand my brick-and-mortar tools.
Now, with two desktops, a laptop, a tablet, two smartphones, a connected PVR, a PS3 and countless accounts and services from Dropbox, Youtube, Netflix, Google apps, Tweeter, Blogger... it does not take much to see how how these devices, interacting with all these apps and data points can quickly start conflicting with each other.
Especially when you layer that these devices communicate over LAN, Wifi, Bluetooth, RF, IR...
Add as well surveillance camera and energy management modules in the future and complex becomes complicated.

UPnP (Universal Plug and Play) and DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) usually do a good job of device discovery. Service and content discovery and priority setting is where it starts to get tricky.
Here are a few of the problems I had to face or am still facing in this hyper connected world.

Authentication and handover:
I use Rogers as a service provider for one of my smartphones. I use their self-help app to manage my bill, my subscription and travel packages. One of the things that is truly a problem is that it works only on a cellular network. Most of the times I need to use it is when I am travelling to add or remove a travel pack for voice, data or text. Because of the expensive roaming data rates, it does not make sense to connect while roaming just to enable a feature that saves me the roaming costs. Obviously, Rogers has not enabled Wifi - cellular authentication and credentials handover.

Authorization and software version control:
I am a Bell subscriber for TV and internet at home. I was excited when I received an email showing off Bell's new mobile TV and companion screen apps for my iPhone / iPad. I was less excited when my iPhone, on rogers network could not use Bell's content, even though I am a Bell customer. Too bad, but I thought at least I could use the PVR remote control with my iPad on Bell's network. Does not work either, because I would have to upgrade my PVR. A PVR, I am renting from Bell. You would think it would be possible for them to know what PVR I am using and therefore allow me to re flash the software to avail of new capabilities or try to up sell me to the latest new PVR and features...

Credentials management
At some point, security relents before complexity. When you want to run a secure network across several interfaces and devices, managing credentials with associated permissions becomes tricky. You have to find a way to have credentials that can easily be shared, remaining secure while managing what device has access to what dataset under which conditions.

Connectivity, content discovery  and sharing:
Inevitably, users buy new devices and add up capabilities along the way. The flip side of that coin, though is that it makes for a very heterogeneous environment. When you start having several devices with similar capabilities or overlaps, you want them to function with each other seamlessly. For instance, my old desktop running XP cannot easily join the workgroup of my new desktop and laptop running windows 7.
There are solutions, but none of them straightforward enough for a regular user. A last example is the fact that my laptop, my iPad, my iPhone, my PVR, my 2 desktops and my PS3 to some extend all act as media servers. They all have local content and they all access content from the cloud, the internet or local content stored in other devices. Again, I haven't found a solution yet that would allow me to manage and share content across devices with clear permission management. Additionally, there is no search or recommendation engine that would allow me to perform meta search across 1) my local content on several devices 2) the internet and OTT content providers and apps I am using 3) the electronic programming guide of my set top box and present me a choice like: do you want to watch boardwalk empire Sunday at 9 pm on HBO, now on HBO Go, buy the entire season on Amazon or play the episodes from my PVR or media servers.

Too often, i have to transcode videos or change content format to ensure that I can see them on all my screens. This leads to multiple versions of the same content, with associated discoverability and version control issues. Another example is around contact management. It is incredible that Apple still does not get contact management right. If you enable iCloud and have your contacts synchronized with anything that is not apple (Google contacts or linked in) you end up with endless duplicates contacts with no hope to merge and delete without adding on new expensive apps.

Control and management:
It strikes me that with that many connected devices and apps, I have not found yet a single dashboard giving me visibility, control and management of all my devices, allowing me to allocate bandwidth, and permissions for sharing data and content across platforms.

I think at the end of the day, this field is still emerging and while it is possible to have a good implementation when purchasing a solution from scratch from a single vendor or service provider, assembling a solution organically as you add new devices is likely to have you spend hours deciphering DNS and DHCP configurations. I think what is needed in the short term is a gateway platform, acting as middle-ware, indexing and aggregating devices and content, providing a clear dashboard for permissions management and authorization. That gateway could be the set-top-box if it is powerful enough. It would give back to MSO the control they are loosing to OTT if they are willing to integrate and provide a cohesive environment.

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