At EH Expo in Orlando this past March there was a booth on the showroom floor that was practically the size of Disneyland. Ive seen many large convention booths over the years at Comdex, CES, and CEDIA but rarely have I seen one that had as significant an impact to a tradeshow as this one did.
So who made the big splash this year? Crestron? AMX? ELAN? Runco? None of the above. Hewlett Packard, in affiliation with Exceptional Innovation, were showcasing their latest hardware and software solutions for the digitally connected homeall based on the Microsoft Media Center Platform.
In a column I wrote for Residential Systems in July 2003, titled HP Goes Custom, I concluded with the paragraph: It should be clear to all integrators in the residential custom electronics industry that computing devices and platforms are becoming an integral part of the custom audio/video industry. Watching what HP is doing in this market can give you a pretty good idea of where were headed.
Almost three years later, Hewlett Packard had its official digital living launch party at EHX, and its clear that they intend to be a major player in our custom electronics industry. To be fair, the difference between intending to be a leader in our industry and actually being a leader is great. The custom electronic manufacturing leaders have earned their reputation and position with great products, technical support, and above all, a relentless devotion to the success of the custom integration channel. Large new entrants like Hewlett Packard have proven that they have excellent products, but their level of technical support to the custom integration channel and their dedication to the success of this channel is still to be determined. If they conclude that this market is large enoughor strategic enoughto marshal their significant resources into helping the custom electronics market become successful with their broad product line, then we may find a new, prosperous, entrant into our channel.
From my perspective, many of the custom electronic industry stars are now aligned for HP. For example:
The launch of Microsoft Vista early next year which will place a Media Center interface on millions and millions of new computers.
The HP portfolio of electronic products that are already sold into the home (TV sets, PDAs, HP printers), and dont forget that they were the first OEM to carry the Microsoft Media Center when it was introduced in 2001. Today you can purchase the new 1.60 Ghz, 200GB drive Slimline HP Media Center PC for under $500.
A partnership with Exceptional Innovation (EI) which has successfully extended the Media Center interface to one that not only controls single-zone audio/video but whole-house audio/video. Additionally EI will control lighting, thermostats, cameras, and security panels across a software architectural interface titled, Web Services for Devices. This is Microsofts next-generation version of Universal Plug and Play and, if successful in the residential marketplace, the thermostat, lighting control system or security panel that you purchase in 2007 or 2008 will be Web Services enabled. These subsystems will be auto-discovered on the home network, and control and programming their features will become as easy as it is to install a printer to a computer today.
A growing legion of new integrators are entering the custom integration workforce with a computer (or IT) background who are already familiar with HP products and technology in the enterprise world and are eager to continue their partnership with them in the residential world. A significant reason that EHX continues to grow dramatically year after year is because of these new IT-oriented integrators.
So if youre a Crestron, AMX, Elan, Control4, HomeLogic, HAI, or Homeseer integrator, what do you do? All of these companies offer great products that have been shipping and reliably installed, in some cases, for decades. The word reliable is critical in this last sentence as there still exists a great deal of uncertainty that a Windows-based control system will have the reliability that a custom integrator demands to run a successful, long-term business. The jury is still out and undecided on this critical, potential show-stopper issue.
So the real question becomes, do you want to wait until that jury comes back with its decision (by then you may be too late to get in the game) or do you want to be part of that jury and make your own decision? I would strongly endorse the latter tack, and I think youll find that most of the larger CEDIA custom electronic integrators are doing the same. They are staying the course with the companies and systems that brought them the success and status that they enjoy today, but they have a Media Center being tested somewhere in their office or a principals home to best determine when its ready for primetime. HPs presence at this years EHX was a clear signal that primetime may not be as far away as you might think.
Gordon van Zuiden (email@example.com) is president of cyberManor, in Los Gatos, California.