Posted in Technology

When your home automation vendor shuts down its servers, what to do?

Insteon is probably not the first home automation vendor to switch off its lights and cloud servers, and certainly it won’t be the last. In April 2022, an announcement at Insteon’s home page didn’t give much hope for customers who have paid for products and services that are supposed to make life easier, safer and more economical at home. All the time and money customers have invested in company’s products may turn out to be useless (there is a glimmer of hope in open source software).

Why does it have to be this way? The root cause is the technologies a cloud system vendor chooses to use for its products and services. A vendor may choose to use standard protocols and open source software, or create a proprietary system that may have a unique advantage in a specific application. WordPress is an example of an open source software (more than 40% of the world’s web sites run on WordPress), whereas Facebook and Twitter are examples of proprietary systems.

If WordPress headquarters would switch off its lights for good, all the web sites powered by the software would continue running without a hitch. Of course, concerns about the future of the product would be raised, but open source software can be fixed and improved by other parties. If Facebook or Twitter decide to switch off their servers, that’s it. Just like Insteon has done.

So why doesn’t a family that is searching for a home automation system choose a product built on open source? It is quite likely that the products they discover first are from big corporations like Google, Apple, or Amazon. They have the marketing power. Only a person with background in computer industry might stop and think: I don’t want to let a vendor snatch my family’s personal information, control our home, or stop the system from running when ever they want. I want to have control over the system.

When this is the desired objective, the search for solutions that don’t lock in customers can begin. But then, also the realities of open source world surface. The leading open source product for home automation is Home Assistant at the moment. The Home Assistant team has already reached out to Insteon users, advising how to migrate to the open source product.

home assistant screen shot

Let’s assume I want to set up a Home Assistant system for our home. First, I need a dedicated computer where the software is installed. Second, I have to find products, like smart lights, plugs, security cameras, or thermostats that are compatible with the software (there are plenty of choices). Third, and this is the hard part, I have to set up the system and test it works as expected.

A while ago, I was evaluating home automation and home security systems for our house. I dropped Home Assistant after reading its system requirements and installation documents. I have a long computing background, and I assessed that this system was so complex and so heavy on requirements that getting it to run would mean an excessive amount of work.

I analysed and tested a number of other open source systems. Not all of them worked. Probably the reason in many cases was misconfiguration (on average, I tried hours rather than days to make a system to run). Finally, I discovered a product that does only thing, and does it really well. Motion has been designed to record video clips or photos sequences when it detects movement in camera frame. Works like a charm. When the time comes that I want more home automation functionality, I have to do another review of available products.

This was a long background story for making my point, which is: it looks like there is a market for businesses that put together ready-to-run home automation systems for customers who are looking for open source solutions. I am a potential customer, and I can’t be the only one. Such commercial ecosystems exist, for instance, for Nextcloud and WordPress.

Stacey on IoT reported on the shutdown of Insteon services.

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