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Are Apps Squeezing Programmers Out? - ResidentialSystems.com

Are Apps Squeezing Programmers Out?

One things I saw at CEDIA EXPO was that major automation companies were talking about ways to make programming systems a far simpler affair. So simple, in fact, that many will include letting end users make system changes like creating lighting and shading scenes or time-of-day events that heretofore would have required some serious brain power and proprietary software to pull off.
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“One is an example, two is a coincidence, three is a trend, and four times a habit…”

For years, our industry has held high the elite and vaunted position of “Programmer.”

This is the guy/gal that breezes in near the end of the job once the dirty work is done and the systems are in place, carrying no tools except for a laptop. He or she surveys the jobsite and selects a workstation in a secluded area of the home and, once comfortable in this preferred habitat, the programmer sits down and steadily taps away at the keyboard, slowly and deliberately turning all of those black boxes and empty touchscreens into vessels of automation magic through complex and obscure code. That is if the programmer even needs to physically be onsite at all—unable for some reason to just remote in from the T1 connected and air conditioned confines of a sleek of leather office chair seated behind a bank of computer monitors that would impress even Apple’s famous design guru Jony Ivee.

But one of the “habits” that you couldn’t help notice at this year’s CEDIA EXPO was that major automation companies were talking about ways to make programming systems a far simpler affair. So simple, in fact, that many will include letting end users make system changes like creating lighting and shading scenes or time-of-day events that heretofore would have required some serious brain power and proprietary software to pull off.

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Crestron’s Pyng hardware and an example of a scene creation page.


Crestron Clears the Way
“Programming” and “Crestron” are two words that are virtually synonymous and interchangeable in our industry. In fact, just adding a single new device to a Crestron system could be an event measured in days, and mastering Crestron programming takes years of study akin to earning a doctorate. However, one of the biggest examples of this, “kinder, gentler” programming approach is Crestron’s new Pyng App and Hub.

When I had Crestron fact check my Pyng review—published in this month’s issue of Residential Systems—company representatives said they actually prefer not even to use the word programming but rather terms like “setup” or “configure.” Crestron even created a video called “Crestron Goes Laptopless” where people chucked no-longer-needed laptops into the trash. And it’s true; with a Pyng system you just walk around with an iPad tapping and configuring from room to room with absolutely zero advanced skill required.

And where a Crestron system that previously might have taken days to set up, with multiple follow-up visits to tweak programming on lighting levels and scenes, a Pyng system takes minutes and concludes with a brief instruction to the homeowner on how to make their own changes. With a magic-button, safety net reset to a “Golden Program” in case they mess up too badly.

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Control4’s Kordon Vaughn demonstrates Composer Express at CEDIA EXPO.

Control4, Savant, and Lutron Streamline, Too
Already considered a simpler programming alternative to Crestron, a similar “programmer-free” message was heard at Control4’s booth, during CEDIA EXPO. The company, however, is taking programming ease a step further with the new Composer Express app, which the company touts as being a significantly faster—70 percent—way to get new systems registered and programmed. Beyond the time savings, Control4 claims that now even junior-grade techs can be turned loose on jobs with just a smart phone or tablet and a few hours training.

Savant’s new home automation app, Savant App, not only promises to let users create and tweak lifestyle scenes on their own, they can even customize the look of the GUI; taking pictures from their devices that can become the personalized background for lifestyle and entertainment scenes they create like “Date Night” or “Movie Time.”

Even Lutron seems to be edging out the programmer with its new Caseta Wireless system, geared straight to end-users by letting them completely set-up and configure their own lighting, shading and thermostat system all from an app.

So, what gives? Is the programmer being replaced by an app? Is this some kind of nightmare for our industry?

In some ways, yes. But also mostly no.

When you look at the advancements in technology coupled with the continued rapid adoption of incredibly powerful and capable mobile devices, it would be naïve to think that major established companies wouldn’t look to adopt these improvements into their product lines. You can bury your head in the sand and tout all the benefits of a $2,500 in-wall touchpanel, but it’s not going to make the $299 iPad go away or become any less desirable to many people.

The truth is, the point where most jobs end up getting hung up or bogged down are those final two yards before the end zone. It’s that time when the last bit of programming is being tweaked, where the homeowner wants one more “just one more change,” and where the final check is being held up until a programmer carves out those hours/days to make seemingly simple changes or adjustments. Thousands of feet of wire, hundreds of connections, dozens of speakers, and it’s that one button on the control GUI that puts on the brakes during many jobs.

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Lutron seems to be edging out the programmer with its new Caseta Wireless system, geared straight to end-users by letting them completely set-up and configure their own lighting, shading and thermostat system all from an app.


Having a simpler, app-based programming solution would resolve many of these issues. Homeowner wants the “Dinner” lighting scene to drop the kitchen to 27 percent and the dining chandelier to 95 percent and lower the shades on the eastern side of the house? No problem. They can do it themselves. And so can any tech in your company.

And now instead of waiting, it is more about finishing, getting paid, and moving on to the next job. In this regard, app-based programming is something successful integrators should welcome whole-heartedly.

I was curious what someone that makes his living off programming thought about these developments, so I sought out the best programmer-for-hire I know, Rich Fregosa of Fregosa Designs. I had a moment to chat with Rich at CEDIA, and while I expected him to tell me all of the reasons why this was a bad idea, it was exactly the opposite. In fact, far from fearing that simplified programming is going to put him out of business, this journeyman programmer is embracing it.

Fregosa explained, “The beauty of the emergence of configurable solutions like Control4, Savant, and Crestron’s Pyng is that they help expand the market now with CI-centered companies leading the charge instead of waiting for some Kickstarter-backed tech company lurking outside of the CE market swooping in and eating their lunch. Setting a higher bar for the lowest common denominator is a great thing for our industry, and it needs to happen. It makes it far more efficient for an integrator to be able to ‘provide the basics’ and complete more projects profitably.”

For most integration companies, the most finite and expensive resource in their inventory is the programmer. These highly skilled and trained employees are a company’s Tier One assets. And just as the military wouldn’t send in Delta Force to deal with a crowd control issue, these simpler, app-based setup will allow companies to offload smaller programming duties to other techs, thus freeing the Tier One guys to go out and work on the mega-complex jobs that require their full brain cycles of expertise.

This is part of the growth that Control4 anticipates its Composer Express will fuel, helping dealers “expand their business by decreasing the training time and logistics for entry-level technicians.”

Control4’s vice president, support and training, Paul Williams, said that this will allow dealers “to utilize their more skilled and experienced technicians for larger projects, so they can complete more smart home installations per month, and contribute more efficiently to top and bottom line business growth.” It will also help to grow a “new tier” of in-house trained staff that can complete smaller projects while continuing to learn and advance their skill sets.

Fregosa echoes Williams’ sentiments, saying, “Instead of having to generate fees for the basics, we can hand over these duties to reasonably trained integrators and their staff, and focus our talents toward making systems special and unique. Software developers will be able to partner with integrators to help set their services apart. Programming is about differentiation, and that’s why I’m excited about the prospect for more business and not less.”

Also, by simplifying and streamlining programming, the cost of systems will come down, thus (hopefully) producing more jobs and allowing integrators to cast a broader net to attract new clientele.

“Personally, I view these new advances as a gateway drug to entice potential future clients,” Fregosa said. “There will always be a need for the high-end, luxury market, but not everyone starts out with a 10,000-square-foot house needing to control 300 lights, 25 zones of audio, and 10 climate zones. Those houses will always be there and will always need a sophisticated solution, but now with solutions at a lower cost of entry, we’re building the client base for people to see value in something more.”

Complexity will always exist in our industry, but instead of simplicity bringing doom-and-gloom, it is something successful companies will embrace. Fregosa sums it up perfectly, “A rising tide lifts all boats, and when you increase visibility and have more projects out in the wild, there will be new markets at price points that are now affordable to get clients accustomed to the concepts of home automation.”

More clients, more jobs, more money. Simple.

John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.

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