Evolving communication standards, coupled with the rapid migration to Web-based control by all control hardware manufacturers, is eroding away pieces of the hardware's traditional functionality and transferring it to software.

Acceptance of IT standards dilutes system uniqueness while bringing newly found power to products. Hardware becomes simpler and develops sameness. The companies that turn complex devices into simple commodities are now looking at how they can build the new breed of controls cheaper, or make these contols part of the existing device infrastructure.

Going Global Lowers Costs

The complexities inherent in the hardware found in our industry are disappearing. When the hardware is reduced to its simplest form, the traditional complexities, features, characteristics, and uniqueness in our industry are extracted and then enhanced and emulated in software. Existing control capabilities are increased with new functionality, which can be developed into software easier and at a lower cost than hardware. Marketing strategies that take advantage of globalization and industry crossover of these software applications increase the volume, allowing the costs to drop even further.

Consider the computer industry. I just replaced my three-year-old laptop for less than its original cost. The new laptop notebook has a six times speed increase, more memory, bigger hard drive, DVD player, CD-ROM burner, bigger screen, and a free all-in-one printer, scanner, copier, camera card reader, etc. How did this giant leap in functionality and drop in cost happen in just over three years? Laptops have become commodities; it becomes evident that the commodity is not important, but it is what we do with the commodity that is key. I think we would have a hard time arguing that our control systems are more complex than a PC notebook.

Controls As Commodities

While traveling in China and Australia, I was fascinated by the highly evolved remote devices that controlled the air conditioning systems. The remote included a temperature sensor that could be placed anywhere you were, with adjustable setpoint; heating, cooling, and automatic control; fan speed control; louver direction control; and even breeze simulation.

The air conditioning control had been turned into a commodity to become part of the air conditioning system much the way the control by a remote of a TV has become. I like this example because the industry standards for remotes do not exist and has the TV, audio, DVD, and surround-sound systems industries in shambles. How many remotes does it take to control your home systems? It is hard to argue about the control functionality they achieve for almost no cost by making controls an integrated commodity. I am sure that the next stage of evolution for these products, including air conditioning control, will include machine-to-IP (internet protocol) network connections utilizing Web-based presentation for easy interface.

The concept of networking to the video screen with browser-based menus seems to be a natural evolution for all these products. Such functionality as the shutting down of air conditioning by an IT-based booking system when a room is not occupied, or turning on the networked digital signage-type video screen with a welcoming message when the occupant first enters the room, would be possible. The video screen could present the instructions to operate all the systems and would function as a TV as well. Increased functionality and ease of use will increase once Web methods control systems through software commands using XML standards, like those now being developed by www.oBIX.org.

Get Ready

oBIX (open building information exchange) is a focused effort by industry leaders and associations working toward creating a standard XML and Web services guideline to facilitate the exchange of information.

There is an amazing focus by noncontrol companies on machine-to-machine interfaces. These interfaces are about enabling device-to-IT and IT-to-device information flow. This market is estimated to grow to $100 billion by 2010. As a connecting industry, we had better be prepared.

My message to the industry is that hardware is melting down, but what made us famous was not the hardware itself but how we were able to weave it into useful systems for our clients. Nothing has changed except that we are now able to do more for less cost and provide a better overall interface with our clients' enterprise by choosing the correct commodity components with the correct software and functionality. Understanding this will grow our businesses far beyond our present hardware models, leaving us limited only by our imaginations.

Are we ready to make this significant industry transition from being hardware suppliers to software developers and system integrators? ES