This week's release of an operating system for your home by Microsoft has thrown a spotlight on a near-future where our homes are more like live-in computers. Microsoft has definite ideas, but Google and Apple have also been long looking at smarthome tech ... and it seems like living in each type of home would feel very different.
HomeOS is an almost inevitable innovation, you may guess from reading MS's blog post about this week's news: "It is no secret that homes are ever-increasing hotbeds of new technology such as set-top boxes, game consoles, wireless routers, home automation devices, tablets, smart phones, and security cameras." Pulling all these different systems together into one cohesive whole is a simple and obvious solution, MS suggests, because all this disparate innovation is "breeding heterogeneity and complexity that frustrates even technically savvy users' attempts to improve day-to-day life by implementing functionality that uses these devices in combination." We won't argue with MS here, and neither will you if you've ever had to fix an Xbox red ring of death or delve deeply into the working code of Windows to fix some critical error in your PC.
But all joking aside, MS's idea makes great sense. By giving your various smart devices a common management system, everything becomes simpler to keep up to date, to fix, to share files between and so on. Plus this way you're virus-proof, running the best eco-management software. MS also imagined a HomeStore app ecosystem in support of it all, with choice over which apps you use to run which parts of your home, or which functionality to add. It's even testing it out in some real homes, and the ideas—while not up to the sci-fi standards of, for example, smarthome SARAH from Eureka—are impressive:
Meanwhile, Google is also busy contemplating the notion of a smarthome and last year at Google I/O revealed Android@Home—an ecosystem for managing your home and its connected devices, right down to your exercise bike, your lamps, and thermostats, basically every electric thing in your home (the action starts at around 06:15):
The Google invention involves having your entire home becoming an Android accessory, completely controllable from an Android device like a tablet or a "hub," managed by simple apps and connected over wireless links.
And Apple? Apple's smarthome plans aren't quite so developed, though they're perhaps a little more eco-friendly because the company has been busy patenting a smarthome energy management system that uses intelligent powerline networking to measure and control which devices are consuming power in your home and then command them via a device like an iPad.
But Apple's secretive in its future plans, and it's also busy fleshing-out its iCloud system, which could, pretty easily, form the spine of a future Apple smarthome, connecting all your Apple products (perhaps even your TV?) to third-party thermostats, light switches and so on, all perhaps controlled by a Siri voice interface.
We dream, of course, but we think the role of Apple would be rather different in an iHouse compared to its rivals' systems: Apple would perhaps be most comfortable building the devices and specifying how they connect to form a coherent whole system—with the actual "work" done by third-party apps and appliances like Nest—versus actually designing an entire home operating system. A slightly different position to Google and Microsoft, perhaps, but one that still lets the company collect data on users' habits and thus tweak the system (and maybe not even sell targeted advertising to them while they brush their teeth in the way, we guess, Google would like to).
Whoever ends up making a success of it, the reasons why this tech is likely to take off are threefold: It's more environmentally friendly through intelligent device and power managment; it's an enabling technology that should allow us to live our lives more easily and perhaps more efficiently; and it's absolutely cool, the inevitable end point of our current obsession with digitizing our lives. We've been promised this sort of tech since the 1950s too... it surely must be due soon! The only question for consumers may be: Would you rather live in a Windows home, an Android home, or an Apple home?