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Friday, Oct. 5, 2001
 
2001 Small Business profiles

Firm places home automation in your own computer's control

By Alwyn Scott
Seattle Times business reporter

Three years ago, the Internet was going to transform our houses into palaces of pampering and safety. Web cameras would let us prowl the yard from work and lock the doors. Sensors on pet collars would let Fluffy and Fido in and out of the house while we were away.

It hasn't worked out like that. Most of us don't have Internet-enabled locks or pet doors. And while today's electronics and appliances offer plenty of controls, none of the systems work together.

The result: Coffee tables littered with remotes. Security, heating and lighting systems that each require a different wall-mounted control panel that's harder to program than a VCR.

A local George Jetson is out to change all that.

Meet Dan Quigley. Enchanted by the 1960s TV cartoon series about a 21st-century family, the former Microsoftie has spent the last three years turning his Redmond house into a place George, Judy, Jane and Elroy could call home.

Last month his company, Redmond-based Premise Systems, launched a Windows-like operating system for home automation that can put virtually any device — motion detectors, audio gear, lights, furnaces, hot tubs — under a single set of controls operated with familiar Windows-like commands. What's more, Premise can route that single, integrated control screen to a browser anywhere in the world — even a Palm.

"This is the next desktop," Quigley says of his operating system. "Microsoft did the computer desktop. This is the desktop of the real world."

Other companies already make master-control systems used in homes and commercial buildings. But these systems, from competitors such as Crestron Electronics of Rockleigh, N.J., and Panja, of Richardson, Texas, use their own proprietary control pads and software, cost tens of thousands of dollars and require weeks of programming at installation. If you buy a new DVD player, the programmer has to come back to work it into the system.

Premise's software is designed to eliminate that programming. It will detect, recognize and configure new equipment on the network, much as a PC sets itself up (with a little help from the user) when a printer is installed.

Premise hopes its "middleware," riding between the devices and a Web browser, will produce a leap in capability and a drop in price — drawing many new users into home automation.

Custom installers who saw it at a recent expo in Indianapolis seem to agree. "It replaces the 16-button wall panel with a browser, which most people are more familiar with," says Gordon van Zuiden, president of CyberManor, a Silicon Valley home networking system integrator. "It's certainly a nicer way to control things."

The software, which runs on Windows 2000, will be sold by installers such as van Zuiden as part of a system that would cost between $5,000 and $10,000. That's less than the $50,000 for current systems, he says.

Premise may benefit from increased concerns about security. But it faces a tough sell in a slumping economy. While home sales are still holding up, the home-automation market is in its infancy. Only about 1 percent of homes are being wired for this sort of ability, according to local builders.

"Very few people ask for it," says Mark Scoggins at Steve Burnstead Construction, a high-end Puget Sound-region homebuilder. "They want granite instead."

Quigley acknowledges these obstacles, but says he'd rather launch at the bottom of a business cycle, because it gives the company more room to grow. Premise, with 27 employees split between Seattle and Ames, Iowa, is staying small for now, relying largely on its founders for funding.

In theory, Quigley's system shifts discussion of home automation from a focus on the device to a focus on function — what you would like to actually do. This "virtual convergence" of technologies opens up an infinite number of possibilities, he says.

A fingerprint reader could identify who's at the door and take action: announce friends, open the garage door for the Federal Express driver, or arm the security system if it's after midnight and the print isn't recognized.

Every Tuesday night at Quigley's house, for example, the system sends a message to his son in his room to take out the trash. "Then the house watches to see if the back door opens," Quigley says. If it doesn't, the system sends a reminder at 6 the next morning.

No word on how his son feels about this.

Alwyn Scott can be reached at 206-464-3329 or ascott@seattletimes.com.

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