Why Is Ethernet Inventor Bob Metcalfe Excited About Home Automation?

January 24th, 2007 |
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For a highly reliable and secure automated home, networking devices and systems is a core requirement. Eric Smith, a co-founder and CTO at Control4, talks with 3Com Founder Bob Metcalfe. Metcalfe has a well-established reputation as a gifted technologist, as “Mr. Ethernet” (here’s why), as a venture capitalist, and as board member at Ember Corporation. These days, he’s placing bets on a new networking technology know as ZigBee, a 2.4GHz wireless standard – IEEE802.15.4 – aimed primarily at monitoring and control, rather than data transfer. In addition to Ethernet, Control4 solutions leverages ZigBee to connect systems where wires just aren’t practical. In addition to making predictions for the future of the Smart Home, Smith and Metcalfe joke about the challenge of changing a thermostat to adjust for daylight savings time, and the reliability of Windows and PCs compared to a stereo receiver.

This podcast is brought to you by Rocky Mountain Voices.

Transcript:

Host: Eric Smith – Control4

Guest: Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

Eric Smith – Control4

I’m Eric Smith, CTO and Founder of Control4 and I am here today at the CES show with Bob Metcalfe, doesn’t need that much introduction, inventor of Ethernet, Founder of 3Com and many other things.

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

…and Chairman of Ember.

Eric Smith – Control4

And chairman of Ember?

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

A ZigBee supplier.

Eric Smith – Control4

Who is one of our best providers and we’re here just kind of talking about technologies and kind of the future of automation and what’s happening and it’s exciting for us to be involved in this kind of a business.

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

People talk about the future of Home Automation, you have to be careful, it’s here already that what we’re really talking about, it has to do with very large numbers, but as you — we were talking earlier, Home Automation has been around for 20 years and it’s beginning to develop some scale now.

Eric Smith – Control4

We founded Control4 on two fundamental technologies, which are Ethernet and Zigbee and really we wouldn’t be the company we were without those things. We need those connectivity standards and honestly for a startup company, like us that’s focus on this kind of product to develop our own networking standards, just wasn’t feasible. And the main reason we needed too, is we needed some things for high throughput, higher bit rate, user interface and things like that and so certain things I mean that kind of thing did, but we also needed kind of a low bit rate, but high reliability, very inexpensive control network. Spent a lot of time looking for a solution, we even looked at putting Wi-Fi in light switches at one point, but it was then that we discovered ZigBee and got pretty excited about it.

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

Well, there’re different kinds of networks for different purposes and there’s large numbers of them in the notion that they’ll be in one emerging standard just doesn’t fly because of what you just said, there’s just such a diversity of the requirement.

Eric Smith – Control4

I think this is why people ask me sometimes when Home Automation standardize, will Windows PC just talk to it all, would it just — how’s it all going to work together and there has been this kind of dream of a plug-and-play home, you put in a light switch, put in a thermostat and it just works. And I often tell people, “Well, look at your PC today. How many different ports are on the sides of that PC?” So, why is there an Edge Modem in it and a Wi-Fi modem underneath in that port and a traditional 56K modem and a USB and a FireWire and a parallel port and a serial port and a mouse connector and a cable connector, or a keyboard connector and a video connector, why so many ports? And that’s a pretty standardized area, it’s we’ve been working on it for a long time and that to think there one standards is going to do, everything seems pretty strange.

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

Well the problem with that suggestion that the Windows PC would be the center of everything is just how what a bad starting point Windows is for something that supposed to be easy to use and transparent and user friendly. I mean we live in fear at our house that something will break with the computer and then we’re going to have to call somebody to come in because we can’t fix it ourselves.

Eric Smith – Control4

I’ve been seeing especially with the advent of the Media Center PC, which is a pretty fun technology, I really enjoy the Media Center PC, but just like any other experience I’ve had at the PC, it’s a PC and occasionally it falls down and people, I don’t know the last time I’ve had to reboot my Sony receiver, it’s been a long time.

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

You have this, as you just said this Ethernet ZigBee combo in your products, so what do you use each of them for? I guess you would use the Ethernet for going up stream into the Internet and you would use ZigBee for going down stream into the control points?

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

Yeah, generally, we just occasionally use the Ethernet to get between devices when it’s possible to, but what we really needed and Home Automation has been around for a long time. I think most consumers are becoming aware of it recently, but it’s been around for 16-17 years at least. I mean that’s how long I’ve been involved in it, but it’s always been kind of this metaphor you’ve either had these kind of, like your XTen stuffing by RadioShack that works most of the time, but was very inexpensive, or you had these very nice wired systems. The problem is what’s the odds that as you have a piece of 5-wire in a light switch box, it’s pretty low for most consumers.

ZigBee is just amazing and because it gives us a very robust, very inexpensive control network that makes all the devices talk and they talk reliably and I think most of it has to do with the mesh networking capabilities there where every device doesn’t have to see, it’s way all the way back to the controller, just as we’ll see the next device.

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

I think you underestimated how old XTen is. I mean I think XTen was around in early 80s, so that be 20 some years ago. It’s amazing how that has persisted.

Eric Smith – Control4

It’s still around and it’s — but it has been mostly a obvious thing because it doesn’t always work. And so, it’s really hard for someone who makes a business of selling Home Automation to put in XTen, because if a certain light in the basement won’t turn off because there’s a compressor on it deep freeze down there next to it, there is nothing that do, or can do about it. And the consumer is going to say, “Why is that? You’ve said it would turn off the lights, it doesn’t turn off that light; I want my money back.” ZigBee allows us to provide the kind of reliability of the wire systems, but very close to the price points of the old XTen systems.

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

Have you thought ahead to when every home has every device on a Control4 network whether there’ll be any interference or overlaps or security breaches are in?

Eric Smith – Control4

It’s definitely something that’s concerning that’s one of my favorite things about ZigBee, is the fact that it has encryption built into it, so that your neighbor can’t just hack your lighting system, or even worse, your security system. I love that and I love the fact that there’re different frequencies. So that there’re 16 different channels, so we can move things around and have a house next door to another house. We’re doing quite a few apartment buildings at this point and we’re finding it works quite well, even when you’ve one apartment right on top of another, there’s full security between them and they all tend to work quite well.

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

How does ZigBee do in a Wi-Fi environment?

Eric Smith – Control4

That’s always a good interesting question too.

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

I guess you could ask it the other way around, how does Wi-Fi do in the ZigBee environment?

Eric Smith – Control4

My best example of all of that is this trade show actually — the Consumer Electronic Show is the worst Wi-Fi nightmare on the planet, mean if you walk over the Convention Center across the street and you set an access point in a Laptop, next to each other, they will not connect. There’s so much noise in that 2.4 Giga Hertz Wi-Fi spectrum. What’s interesting is, ZigBee is in the same spectrum, but because it uses different techniques of sending data, it works better in it. We’ve got a booth right over there in the mid of that where Wi-Fi does not work in that building and the ZigBee works great and it’s a kind of an amazing thing.

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

So, all that prior planning and engineering is paying off now.

Eric Smith – Control4

It is and it’s — companies like Ember that have made it happen for us, we’ve been very excited about that.

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

So, introduce a long term standard like Ethernet was, like ZigBee will be, you do a lot of engineering, thinking of scalability in the long turn and then when you first come out with products, they’re too expensive because they’ve all that functionality, multi channel, encryption, frequency this, frequency that, speed and the initial instantiation of the product that you compare that to the junky proprietary things and they look better.

Eric Smith – Control4

Absolutely.

Eric Smith – Control4

So, if there was Ethernet in the early 80s at 10 mega bits per second and put up a little ARCNET look better because it was much, much cheaper, it didn’t have all that rigmarole in it. Of course then it’s the networks scaled up and as the Ethernet got cheaper then the frailty of the proprietary things faded.

Eric Smith – Control4

I remember when the concept of an Ethernet card built into a computer was just absurd. I mean no one would think about building that in because how many people really need that with network anyway and so you buy a NIC card and put it in the PC and make it work together. And it was a pretty neat thing and I think it was like about 95 or 96, when I first started seeing Ethernet card standard in the PCs. And I think the problem was, as I said earlier we looked into it for control systems, but it was in the neighborhood of $80 to $90 back in 1995 to put Ethernet on a device, now it’s $5 or $6.

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

Well, the first Ethernet card I sold cost 5000.

Eric Smith – Control4

I can imagine?

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

But ZigBee has a similar problem in that. It is — because now we’re down to some $5, way below $5 single chip solutions and that’s continuing to go down. So, as the network scale up and as the Control4 networks get bigger so that the features of ZigBee are more appreciated and then as we manage at Ember to get ZigBee to be cheaper and cheaper, a little take off.

Eric Smith – Control4

Volume plays the game almost everywhere in the — we’re seeing it happened already and I think when you get to. If you go right now — Control4 sells dimmers their $99 and that honestly shocks regular people, $99 for light switch? Because they’re used to that $2 home depot that a rocker and that seems expensive, but if you look that as compared to the other technologies, they’ve historically have been the lighting systems, they were $350 – $400 and so people in this industry tend to go, “Wow, $99 dimmer? That’s just as affordable as anything I’ve ever seen.” But I do believe, we’ll get down to where they were at the $25 to $29 dimmer, which is about the price of a decent dimmer, home depot right now. If you want to go buy nice dimmer that you can put on your wall, that’s would it cost and I think that’s when it becomes ubiquitous. I think we’re on the right curve to get there.

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

It’s all inevitable really just at the moment — it sort of feels like it’s coming, but it’s inevitable, it’s going to happen. Those curves always happen.

Eric Smith – Control4

The one I’d like to look at is similar I talk about is, one of our evidences that Home Automation will hit the broad market, is that rich people and regular people are the same, they want the same things, just rich people can afford them. And high-end homes tend to have these systems. They’ve been for at least for last five years most high-end homes that are being built, have a Multi-room Audio System, have a dedicated media room, have lighting control, have an integration system.

If you look back 30 years ago, how many cars had power locks and power windows? It was only the very high-end cars because it’s quite of an expensive feature. Well I just read something a couple of months ago and one the papers saying that, Apple-Ford and Chrysler aren’t going to offer crank Windows anymore because that mechanical crank is more expensive than the power window motors,” because they’ve gone into a volume now that that’s less expensive and I think we’ll get there.

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

Well, look at the GPS I am never going to buy a car without a GPS.

Eric Smith – Control4

Absolutely.

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

How long will it be before all cars have GPS in them, five years, two years, eight years?

Eric Smith – Control4

I don’t think it’s very long.

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

Not very long.

Eric Smith – Control4

It’s the best thing for men because we don’t have to ask for directions ever again.

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

So, Eric, I have been — as to ensure the expert in Home Automation and I’m just the expert on networking. How do you see things rolling out over the next 10 years, so you can use our networks in your Home Automation systems?

Eric Smith – Control4

I believe the prices will go to the point in the next 10 years that most consumers, almost all consumers will have, like the same kinds of consumers that have TVs, will have Automation. I think we’re going to get there because the price points are going to get there and…

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

Yeah, but there’s another point, there’s price points and I take your — I’m not just agreeing, but then there’s usability points, that’s right now a lot of our systems they’re as like my Honeywell Thermostats that I have on that, which are very old. I still can’t program those things. I go through the manual pressing all those silly buttons, so when you’re going to reach a — when do you think, or have you already reached the usability price point where things take off?

Eric Smith – Control4

Well, fundamentally when you look at Home Automation, it’s about two issues. It’s about networking all devices so they talk to each other and then building up a common user interface to all those devices. And the thermostats is a very good question because programming a setback thermostat with a little cryptic buttons and keys, trying to figure out what you’re doing is almost impossible, it’s a real pain. And one of the things we do because we talk to the thermostat whether it be one that we build or someone else does, we can present that UI on your home PC, which is a much better user interface, you have a much better ability to do things on that.

Can you imagine trying to do — like buy a new computer on your thermostat, but buying it on a Web page isn’t that hard. If you can program your thermostats through a Web interface, you can give them a better user experience. If you can do it through your TV and things like that. The other things that happens, if we have a setback thermostat, I know you live somewhere it’s kind of cold, in most of the year. Most people have their thermostats setbacks so that in the evening, it turns out that sets back to heat a little bit, then brings a backup in the morning at 6:30, say, but have you ever had to catch a flight earlier than that? Did you actually reprogram your thermostat to bring out the heat? No, it’s too difficult.

But if you have an automation system, your alarm clock could be integrated to your thermostat. So, now when you set your alarm clock to wake you up an hour earlier, because you’re going to go catch a flight, they track automatically adapts to turn on 20 minutes before that wake up and that really makes a great experience for the consumer.

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

I need that, absolutely. Because my situation is so bad that when Daylight Savings Times comes, we just let the heat come on an hour earlier or later depending on (voice overlap) we can figure it out.

Eric Smith – Control4

It is too difficult to program this stupid thing. It is very difficult and that’s one of the benefits of automation. And another one I’d like talk about a lot, is people say why automate things? I mean I’ve got all these separate systems, but there’re real synergies to come when you integrate the systems. The best example I can think of is, if you have a smoke detection system, that’s integrated with your heating and air conditioning system and that’s integrated with your lighting system and that’s integrated to your motorization, like motorized blinds, or garage door and that’s also integrated with your audio system, there’re some really interesting synergies that can come.

Let’s say the smoke detectors go off, when people are in a fire what kills them? It’s usually not the fire, it’s the smoke. Well, a heating air conditioning system is a perfect mover of smoke in your house, so I call it the equal opportunity killer. Doesn’t matter where the fire is in the house? The HVAC will make sure that the smoke gets to every room; it also provides fresh Oxygen. So, if the smoke detectors could immediately turn off the heating systems, the fan doesn’t blow. That has some real tangible benefit for a consumer. Usually when fires kill people tonight…

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

Turning the lights on.

Eric Smith – Control4

…dark, turn the lights on. Maybe not full blast — though because it might do the fog light a whole, but bring up 20% so you don’t blind yourself in the middle of night. How about making the motorized blinds in the garage door, automatically pop open so you get quicker escapes, so you don’t have to wait for door to go. How about having the audio system announce over the house, system where the fire is? By law, all smoke detectors have to go off, even if one senses the fire, but if the audio system could say, “You know the fire downstairs in the office, or the storage room,” that would be very helpful to people getting out of the house.

Another the problem is, fire trucks come at down the street at night. It’s a little bit hard to see address numbers on a house and truthfully if the flames are coming out the roof, it’s too late. The fires usually are hidden if you could have your front porch lights and yard lights are flashing that has some real tangible benefit, that kind of shows how you feel — integrate all those systems. That really has benefit because there’s so much…

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

So, there’s three sort of triggers, there’s price point, there’s usability point and then there’s systemic value point to connecting everything together. Those three things are driving adoption I’m guessing.

Eric Smith – Control4

People have been looking. I’ve spoken at probably 15 conferences, where the topic was, “What’s killer app of Home Automation,” and they’re looking for the killer app, kind of like the Spreadsheet was for the PC, what’s the killer app for Automation? The challenge I think is that the killer app is the integration itself. It’s the making the things work together that is the killer app, I don’t think there’s anyone item of a Home Automation that’s going to be the reason why people buy it all by itself.

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

So, that’s another benefit of standardized networking. When you have a standardized network, not only does it get cheaper more quickly because there’re a lot of people using it driving volume, but then there’s also the value of being able to connect products from many different companies together, so that you can — “Oh, there’s a light I will use ZigBee that talk to it.”

Eric Smith – Control4

Absolutely. Well, thank you Bob it’s been great talking to you and it’s been good to spend some time with you.

Bob Metcalfe – 3Com

It’s exciting being here at CES with you.

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