Are installers making the most of digital business?
Late last year, a Sydney man became one of the first in the world to hack in to iPhone’s voice recognition app, Siri, and then put it to work automating parts of his home.
Marcus Schappi, director of Little Bird Electronics, which develops apps for companies like Qantas, Caltex, Foxtel and Austar, says it was a simple, inexpensive process and that he now plans to sell a ‘plug and play’ box sometime this year that will let anyone do pretty much the same thing.
“It could do a lot of simple tasks, such as turn air conditioning on or off, control home entertainment or alarm systems, or unlock the front door or the car,” Marcus says.
While hacking maybe a bit out of the ordinary, the infiltration of apps – those convenient, online digital programs once only available on landlocked PCs – across all aspects of our lives isn’t. In fact, at last count there were around 1 million of them available somewhere on the web. And a staggering 15,000 new ones are launched globally each week.
While their popularity goes without saying, apps have also become very serious business. Not only are people using them to shop, pay bills, run their lives and stay in touch no matter where they are in the world, they’re also being used right across the smart home sector to both underpin how installations are now done and, increasingly, how home owners access and control it all.
COMMERCE GETS SOCIAL
A survey last year by the MYOB Business Monitor found that two out of three small Australian businesses still don’t have a website, with companies more than 10 years old the most reluctant. The holdouts also tended to do less business, with 30% of those with a web presence saying revenue had increased in the last 12 months compared to just 23% of those companies without one.
It helps that three quarters of Australian homes now have broadband and two thirds of adults say they’re regularly buying goods and services over the internet, which is the prime reason that Paypal says the country’s e-retail market will grow by 40% this year and ring up $37 billion worth of sales. Product research is also a key motivating factor, especially for consumer electronics it seems, and one recent survey found that half of those questioned went online to look for products, compare prices and most importantly of all, confirm that a company is reliable enough to have a strong web presence.
But as consumer online habits keep evolving it’s no longer just enough to have a site. For a start, social networking sites like Facebook, Google+, YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter, Flickr and Tumblr are some of the fastest growing areas of the internet. Twitter alone grew 59% last year and now reaches more than 10% of internet users worldwide, while location-based services like Foursquare, photo ones like Instagr.am, and many other mobile applications, require either Facebook or Twitter for amplification and sharing.
Australians are all over the trend. According to the most recent census data, we’re spending the majority of our web time on them, a fact Facebook confirmed early last year when it said that 8 to 10 million Australians were ‘active users’ and 6.6 million check in each day.
Despite potentially big audiences though, a lot of businesses have struggled to see the relevance of marketing via social media or even online. According to an international study, nearly half of small business owners felt no need to use social media,with most preferring word of mouth recommendations. It looks even lower here, with KPMG recently finding that Australian businesses had only a 41.6% social media adoption rate compared to China’s 87%, and the US and India (both on 70.2%).
Marketing to smart phones, tablets and pads is also emerging as the next big wave as everyone goes mobile, even at home. Downloads of apps for smart phones for instance will be near 48 billion by 2015 (the year Google suggests half the Australian population will own a smart phone) while new figures by IPSOS showed that eight in 10 smart phone users say they use them for shopping, to find businesses and compare prices. It seems to make sense commercially as well. Recently Dell said it’s finding that the average order from its Android and iOS mobile apps is 25% larger than online orders.
And for a glimpse of the future, just look at how well the iPad has done since it was introduced in 2010, with new figures showing it has seen 3 billion apps downloaded in just one year, a far more rapid app penetration than even the iPhone racked up.
Still, a lot of big and small businesses, even those with well resourced web sites, have not factored in the need to re-work their sites so that they not only look good on a smaller screen, but function the way they should, with estimates that only 5% of small to medium Australian businesses have a ‘mobile optimised website’.
Even a very quick survey of home technology or installer companies around Australia suggests that online strategies vary hugely. While a website is pretty much standard for bigger companies, not many have branched out in to other options like social media, blogs or online advertising and marketing, though Facebook is probably the most common choice. A common sentiment from a number of companies however was that word of mouth recommendations and long standing commercial relationships with builders or retailers were still the most crucial element in generating new work.
But not everyone thinks that’s enough anymore. One company with a strong interest in pushing a greater role for online marketing and promotion is Surround Sounds in Western Australia. It not only runs websites and Facebook pages for two companies, Surround Sounds and Cinema Deluxe, but has invested in Google and Facebook advertising, leverages event sponsorship for wider online pickup, markets via email occasionally and runs regular company blogs.
“An online presence is very important for us,” says Surround Sounds codirector Mark Jeisman.
“We still do some niche print advertising, but that’s not really a major focus anymore.”
“Getting the web right takes work, and you have to monitor traffic and regularly update sites, but I think being online can be very powerful for a company like ours that wants to be linked to lifestyle trends.
“I also see this as a long-term investment because for the generations coming along, being online and using apps is just second nature.”
THE NEW INTERFACE
Apps, though, are certainly already on the radar of most smart home automation companies here as they quickly reinvent how home installations get configured.
“Apps are massive,” says Brenton Morris from Perth-based installer Intelligent Home.
“They’re now built into a home’s touch screens and we’re also giving all our clients secondary control via their smart phones and tablets for complete flexibility.”
Certainly some of the biggest names in residential networking have helped lead the app attack at home. Some of the best are Crestron Mobile Pro, Extron iGVE, Middle Atlantic MAP Toolbox, AMX TPControl, Savant TrueControl, Control4 MyHome and Lutron Home Control, which not only range widely in price but come increasingly with the capacity to work on both Apple and Android devices. This is a trend that has led some in the industry to predict big commercial companies may ultimately even do away with remotes for a lot of AV products.
“The app trend is really important for how you articulate the features of control to a client,” AVD Australia managing director Sandy Howard says.
“But you still have to get the core or base level right.”
But it’s not only home networking where apps are emerging from the periphery, and some of the more popular ones proliferating on installers’ (and even clients’) phones and tablets range from the highly technical to the downright simple, aimed more at helping get a smart home install done properly.
And nowhere has been as active as audio. While quite a few apps like the RTA Lite or Sound Meter are fairly straightforward monitors, others get a lot more tailored.
The AudioTools app for instance comes with a box of options for sound and component testing. SoundLevel gives you an audio waveform analyser. ProAudioCalc lets you read amplifier output. JL Audio houses calculators, set up software, a SPL meter and a speaker polarity test. The Frequensee, Pocket RTA or 3D Spectrum Analyser LWP apps hone in on spectrum analysis, while SignalScoper Pro app comes with a FFT Analyser, Octaveband Analyser, Oscilloscope and Sterio Signal Generator — and these are just a few of the options out there that are either free or cost very little.
Home theatre and projector installs are well covered too. Autonomic Mirage Media Controller, Denon Remote App, Kaleidescape, Logitech Squeezebox Controller, Marantz Wizz App, Pioneer iControl and SONOS Controller are all reliable, productspecific options. More general projector setups though include the award winning ProjectorCalc, an app that can calculate image width, image height, diagonal length, brightness in Nits, total projected area and how many pixels per inch the projected image will be. Colormeter, Lens Calculator Pro and the HD Sleuth app, which can help pinpoint where the set up is going wrong, are all highly useful.
Some of the most exciting though are popping up with performance dashboards, custom visualisation and game savvy graphics for real time access to building automation. One of the best is DGLux Mobile from DGLogik Inc, which works on both Apple and Android devices to create fully flexible, intelligent building visibility to easily create specialised applications and dashboards for all building functions.
So what’s the bottom line? You can find nearly any app for any job or product out there and the good (and bad) news is there are new ones coming all the time. Like any new technology it also has attracted criticism.
Some installers feel that it is lowering the skill level, while others fear it’s opening the whole industry to a new wave of DIYers. There are also instances where apps fail to work as promised and given the sheer tsunami of them appearing every month there’s a real chance of app fatigue and confusion. Luckily we’re already starting to see companies like Verizon bring out apps that combine other apps and their My FiOS app combines a whole range of services including AV and home automation.
According to John Fennell from the Smart Wiring Consortium, it’s a trend that’s rapidly evolving but should be approached in a practical and planned way.
“US integrators seem to be engaging with their online presence much more than contractors here, and I saw recent figures that showed eight in 10 are on Facebook, three quarters are on LinkedIn and around a third are now regularly using Twitter. We’re a long way from that,” he says.
“We’ve been in this space for a while and have a Smart Wiring Facebook page, do quite a bit of online marketing, write blogs and use our Twitter account #copperlife to promote the smart home, but it does take quite a lot of work and it’s an area we always seem to be responding to.
“We hope to have a Smart Wiring app sometime this year and are trying to encourage all our contractors to take some steps toward an online presence, but we know it takes time and money to do well.”