Take a position as an observer on the sidelines of a soccer game between two teams of children six years of age and younger and you can gain some special insight into the current state of the home automation industry. I realized this recently when I searched my memory for the source of the Deja Vu I experienced while considering the level of interoperation that is possible using most existing home network products. Things finally clicked when I recalled a particular soccer game I refereed between two teams of under-six players in our local soccer league. Because my oldest son began playing soccer around the age of six, I had the opportunity to personally observe contests between teams at many levels of skill over the past ten years. During that time I observed a full spectrum of teamwork; from teams demonstrating absolutely no understanding of the concept of teamwork to teams that performed at the level of a finely tuned machine. These differing levels of teamwork provide us with a unique analogy to product interoperation in home networks.

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Until recently, product manufacturers have seemed to be more focused on emphasizing individual features of their products and much less on interoperability. This lack of emphasis on interoperability has contributed significantly to the frustration many of us have experienced while trying to assemble systems from the products available to us. It is easy to be seduced by bells and whistles and equally disappointing to discover that instead of a symphony of cooperating devices we end up with a collection of hotshot products operating in discord; each insisting on emphasizing its own importance to the system. As a former assistant coach of a local soccer team, I can say without reservation that I would rather have a team of players with average skill level and who understand the value of teamwork, than I would a team of hotshot players, each trying to get into the spotlight.

In some ways, the lack of interoperation amongst many products today reminds me of experiences I had refereeing soccer games involving very young players – six years old and younger. At this age the kids have not figured out that they are a team and how teamwork can help them get the ball down the field and into the opponent’s goal. In fact, some of them aren’t sure why they are even out on this big grassy field with long straight lines made of a peculiar powdery white dust. More than once I have seen a ball bounce off of a child standing mid-field staring up at a buzzard circling the field or perhaps the overhead flight of a fighter jet from a nearby Air Force base.

Some of you are nodding your heads because you’ve been on the sidelines or in the field too, either as a soccer fan, or as a home automation product user, or maybe both. Need I say that this is not interoperability. The problem here is not with the coaching staff. The kids aren’t the problem either. They are having fun and that is what soccer at their age is all about. As I write this I am reminded of one of my favorite authors who once wrote:

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

We can understand, excuse and even be entertained by the absence of understanding of teamwork amongst young children competing in a neighborhood league. But few of us would appreciate such behavior during a contest between high school or college teams. We expect and even demand a much higher level of skill and teamwork from teams at these upper age levels.

In the past, many home automation product developers have not approached their product design with product teamwork (interoperation) as a driving influence. They were (and many still are) content with populating the field with product. Their approach to home automation has been to emphasize features that capture attention and distract from the issue of interoperation. Consumers within the home automation industry have fallen victim to this situation far too long. You and I need to begin asking product developers and installers some tough questions and we need to be educated so that we ourselves already know the correct answers. It is no longer important which bell or whistle can be heard above the others. We must insist on harmony of operation of all products on the home network. This cooperation amongst products can best be realized through well-engineered system design. The design must include a solid model that provides for consistency in exchange of data and control commands between products throughout the system.

Data models provide the system designer a point of reference for how devices interact within the system. Developing a model is a long and challenging process. It is not uncommon to be well into the development of a model only to discover fundamental flaws in the core concepts on which the model was built. When this happens, it becomes necessary to revisit the core design and correct the flaw. Sometimes this requires stripping away all of the services and features that were built around the previous core so they can be redesigned to take full advantage of the new core. When a solid core has been established, the model can survive stress testing by applying special product interaction scenarios. If any one of these scenarios causes the model to “collapse” or “cave in”, it may be necessary to go back to the drawing board and start again. A system designed around a solid model can deliver the interoperation the home automation industry needs.

One model that has recently been developed for this purpose is the System Resource Data Model (SRDM). This model originated within the System Engineering team at SMART Corporation. The high level of interoperation provided by this model comes from a solid, core information exchange model. Around this core we developed a model for application interoperability that recognizes every device attached to the home network as a source of, or subscriber to, one or more system-wide resources. Every product in the home that is developed around the SRDM has the ability to be affected by, or to affect, one or more system resources. This consistent model for interoperability benefits the user, the product developer and the product integrator. While some standards and specifications have long promised this level of interoperability, the SRDM delivers and does so in a way that is both simple and elegant.

The next time you have an opportunity to observe a group of individuals demonstrating precision and harmony, be it on a sports field or on stage in an orchestra or play, remember that it takes both talent, teamwork and many hours of practice to achieve this level of performance. Remember to expect that same level of performance from the products you use to populate your home network. Unless you and I set a high standard for product interoperability, the gadget guys will continue to flood the market with immature products that require either a magician or a genius to convince them to coexist in a cooperative manner.