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Live From CES: Lowe's and Staples Simplify Home Automation... Sort Of

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Home automation isn't simple, and anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell you something.

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Home automation stole the show at last year's CES, but this year it's stuck in the lower floor of the south hall – the basement, basically. The technology is still too confusing for most folks because it hasn't standardized. Or rather, it's adopted too many standards: Z-Wave and Zigbee are the big ones, but there are also smaller contenders like Insteon. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth aren't optimized for home automation, but they offer a shortcut to smartphones, and have been embraced by start-ups like Nest and August.

Lowe's (NYSE:LOW) and Staples (NASDAQ:SPLS) aim to cut through this confusion by selling hubs – or gateways, in industry lingo – that work with a variety of standards. A hub is important for a few reasons. First, it simplifies the software end by giving homeowners a single app that controls everything. Second, it ensures that all of these devices work together. Both Lowe's and Staples have announced new partners in the last few days, expanding the number of devices that that are "certified" to work well with their systems.

This year, they've been joined by a company called Revolv. As you might expect from a tech start-up, Revolv's app is particularly nice – which is a good thing, since customers will be seeing a lot of it. Later in 2014 we'll see Securifi's Almond+, which is actually a Wi-Fi router with home-automation capabilities, making for a pretty convenient 2-in-1.

Buy a hub, download an app, control your home. Simple, right? But that's the problem; home automation isn't simple, and simple solutions can cause trouble. For example, Z-Wave and Zigbee are low-power standards, and while this makes them battery-friendly, it also kills their range. To get around this shortcoming they use something called mesh networking. If your kitchen thermostat is too far away to talk with the bedroom unit, it can relay messages through the alarm system, or the door locks. If these appliances don't speak the same language, then the whole scheme falls apart.

Also, it's not always easy to get two devices working together, even under the best of conditions. The Z-Wave Alliance is now celebrating its 1,000th certified product. Since Revolv's hub incorporates Z-Wave, it should, in theory, be compatible with all 1,000 of them, but the company's website only lists a few dozen. It takes elbow grease to pull together a home-automation system and keep it functional. This means that larger companies like Lowe's, ADT (NYSE:ADT) and Nexia can offer a wider selection of compatible hardware, as well as a quicker adoption of new products.

It also means that a monthly fee is the appropriate business model. A lot of people object to that kind of commitment, but the fact remains that home automation is a service. Revolv only charges for its hub, but that hub is useless if the company doesn't incorporate new hardware, update the app, and maintain its cloud-based platform. If you want any kind of guarantee that your system won't one day turn into a wall decoration, then be prepared to pay for its upkeep.

A Nexia rep pointed out to me a problem with the Bluetooth locks coming onto the market. August and Lockitron don't replace your dead bolt, they simply attach to it – and this can cause problems if the door isn't aligned perfectly or the weather is funny. Automated locks from Schlage are tapered. It seems obvious, but I didn't think of it.

So beware simple solutions and simple payments. Home automation isn't easy to pull off, and anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell you something.

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