Smartphones and Broadband Are Making Our Homes Smarter

As consumers adopt smartphones and mobile broadband becomes more ubiquitous, I continue to think about what’s on the horizon. The potential is there for smartphone-powered home robots, but perhaps that concept is a little too far-fetched for the immediate future. A little closer to present day, however, are smarter homes, with brains enabled by machine-to-machine network technologies, mobile applications for monitoring and control, and Internet connectivity to keep homeowners in the loop.

A recent example of what smarter homes will bring to consumers is the upcoming iPhone (s aapl) app from ADT, a home security company purchased by Tyco International (s tyc) in 1998. ADT — which started in 1874 by combining 54 telegraph companies — plans to offer a $1,200 home surveillance system next month, allowing remote monitoring of the home from anywhere with an iPhone and the ADT Pulse app. Without mobile broadband and application integration on the handset, such a system wouldn’t be possible at a reasonable cost for consumers. Note that the $1,200 figure represents a top-end package composed of various sensors, cameras, thermostats, locks and lighting control. Allowing ADT to monitor your home will cost upwards of another $57 each month.

Why Not DIY?

Consumers can take advantage of smartphones and mobile broadband to create their own smart homes for much less. I recently began dabbling with such a project myself, and there’s no monthly fee involved. I purchased a $200 thermostat and a smart light switch to start adding intelligence to my home; both were easily installed in a matter of minutes. The two devices communicate with my home automation system with Insteon, a networking technology that sends data through the electric wires in my home as well as over the air in the 900 MHz frequency band.

ISY-99i Pro Home Automation Computer

I could have created my home’s “central nervous system” with a desktop computer, but I didn’t want the system, which runs constantly, to use too much electricity. Instead, So I bought a $368 computer that’s roughly the size of the new Apple TV at four-inches square and one-inch thick; it’s silent and power efficient. The device is headless, meaning that you connect to it through a home network with a web browser, and it doesn’t need a monitor or keyboard. That’s where mobile broadband starts to work its magic.

Since the headless computer that acts as my home’s brain is on my wireless network, it has an IP address, just as all networked devices do. To access the system while away from home, I’ve configured my home network to allow specific access from the Internet and use a third-party dynamic DNS service. That’s a fancy way of saying that when I type a custom URL into the browser of my smartphone, I’m able to control my home network over the web. On a simple web page, I can check the temperature or humidity of my home and even turn on the heat or air conditioning if need be. I can also turn the outside lights near my garage on or off from there. For example, not long after I landed in London to cover Nokia World earlier this month, I was flicking the lights on and off from over 3,000 miles away.

Smarthome status in a smartphone browser

Flipping light switches remotely from a smartphone is fun but of course, that’s not the reason for such systems. Aside from making my home appear lived in while I’m away, I’m interested in managing my energy consumption, which is another benefit. The headless computer can easily be programmed to take certain actions. For example, I like the outdoor garage lights to fire up near dusk, and I don’t want to forget that they’re on all night long, wasting electricity. With a few If – Then statements on my new system, I’ve programmed the lights to automatically turn on 15 minutes prior to sunset and then turn off at 10pm if I didn’t already shut them off manually. The computer is even smart enough to realize that sunset is at a different time each night, so there’s no waste of power because of shorter or longer days.

Although I’m just getting started with my smart home, I’m already experimenting with additional capabilities. Just for kicks, and to test the system, I set up messaging so that my home shoots me an email when certain events take place. Since I only have two components for my home automation system, the events and messages are pretty limited. The first time I got an email when the air conditioner fired up was fun, but it became a little annoying after a few days of hot weather. Still, the idea of my house telling me when things happen at home shows promise when I think about adding cameras, garage door sensors and more in the future.

Eventually, I’d like to merge electricity information with my home system. I’ve previously reviewed a smart meter device for the Microsoft Hohm (s msft) service and it provides excellent data on power consumption. For now, I see no way to get the data integrated with my home system, so I’m accessing the information through a separate web page. However, this is another example of how smartphones and mobile broadband are empowering such information: From any web-connected computer in the world, I can instantly see current and historical energy consumption info from my house.

Thermostat control in an iOS app

While the web is a great common denominator for smart home projects, watch for an increased number of smartphone applications that leverage this space as well. I was managing my system in a browser until I stumbled across several mobile apps for home automation. After a few weeks of research, I settled upon MobiLinc Pro for Apple iOS devices. This $20 app provides a much cleaner interface than a basic web page and acts more like a consumer-friendly remote control for the home. With minimal configuration, it connects to my home automation server and provides simple, one-touch access to my home.

I’m still learning how to take advantage of my smarter home, and thanks to connectivity and more capable handsets, I have the tools to continue my education in the future. At least until those home robots I keep looking for finally arrive, that is.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):