Exceptional Innovation, HP Woo Home Integrators

The Westerville, Ohio-based company made its second annual appearance at CEDIA Expo this week, displaying a fully enabled digital home with all lighting, heating, security and entertainment control, management and distribution running off a Life|ware system. The 2,500-square-foot home, as well as a large booth on the show floor, also reflects HP's continued commitment to the company.

HP took the opportunity to unveil its first home integrator partner program and a new line of Digital Entertainment Center (DEC) PCs. EI also promised to begin shipping, after some delay, the remainder of its initial hardware -- including the Life|storage digital media server, Life|vision digital television server, Life|point touch panels, Life|controller Web Services-enabled controller, and Life|link Web Services modules -- in December.

"This shows we're bringing everything to another level," Jan-Luc Blakborn, Hewlett-Packard's North American director of Digital Entertainment, said of the partnership as he lead a group of HP employees around the eight-room digital home display. "Just look around at what we're doing. It shows how committed we are to delivering connected entertainment."

Integrators say the Life|storage media server is a major component of the EI platform because it's a dedicated unit that runs embedded Windows XP software. In the past, the system had to run on a Windows-based PC, which posed stability and security risks that kept integrators at bay.

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"Who in their right mind wants to put control of their home on a Windows machine?" said Eric Lee, president of Integrated Control Experts, a Chicago-based residential system integrator. "Before we put one in a client's home, you better believe we're going to beat the hell out of it and try to make it crash. But I do think the whole concept is awesome. It's about bringing affordable home control to the masses, although that's a bit off in the future."

Lee said he'd be willing to look closely at the Life|storage system once it ships and the platform builds a track record.

The Life|ware concept is based on open standards, scalable home control and automation solutions, which can start at several thousand dollars. Though the hardware and software solution is much different, the concept of cost-effective home control and automation for the masses is similar to that of Control4, which launched with a huge marketing splash at the CEDIA Expo three years ago and, after several product delays, has begun to gain traction among hundreds of integrators.

EI and Control4, in many ways, represent a paradigm shift in the home integration industry by offering a less expensive alternative to bellwether home control players like AMX and Crestron, which target the luxury home market. Blakborn and Mike Seamons, EI's director of sales and marketing, said their partners have installed about 200 full systems, with a handful of large-production home developments in the works. "This is not a vapor solution," Seamons said. "It's real technology for real homes."

One of EI's first partners, Exceptional Entertainment Experience, has installed complete Life|ware solutions in about 10 homes, said Andre Brown, the Naples, Fla.-based integrator's owner and general manager. Exceptional Entertainment is preparing to integrate eight more homes and is working on a 50-unit, Life|ware-based "smart home" development in Tampa, Fla. The stand-alone jobs range from $10,000 to $20,000 and yield about 40 points of profit margin, he said.

"Life|ware's new software platform is a big improvement. It makes the integrations seamless and the systems a lot easier to program," said Brown, who was the head integrator for EI's exhibit home. "All of the new products are working well. It has all come together. I'm doing more jobs than I had expected."

Eric Bergum, executive vice president of TheaterPro, a systems integrator and home theater installer in Amherst, N.Y., is another integrator who's taking a wait-and-see approach before bringing on the Life|ware line. But he's familiar with the products and has seen improvements.

"It's still too early to have something as mission-critical as home control on something that hasn't been proven mission-critical," Bergum, said. "I don't want to get a call at 10 p.m. from a customer who can't turn their lights on. But if you throw enough marketing money and you have the right commitment, anything can take hold."