Technology books frequently have a very brief shelf life before they go stale. How many how-to books do you gathering dust on your shelf, or have donated to Good Will, on the subjects of DOS, Windows 3.1, Word 2.0, or even older technologies?
Which is why it’s always surprising to see one such book that’s aged pretty well. It’s on home automation, a subject that can often be a daunting task to learn more about. Many of us start with an interest in one field (for me, it was home theater), then want to learn more. It can be a slow learning curve to get up to speed on lighting, security, electricity, whole-house audio and video, computers, and all the other areas that home automation incorporates. So in 1999, a couple of years into my odyssey of giving my home some smarts, I was thrilled to have stumbled over Smart Homes for Dummies by Danny Briere and Pat Hurley.
If you’ve been put off by the title and concept of this series (“Hey, I’m no dummy, I know enough about technology to be online reading Blogcritics, for Christ sakes!”), then rest easy. This is a terrific summary of all of the areas of home automation that will allow anyone to get “the big picture.”
Focus on the Infrastructure
And while it’s original edition was retired after nearly three years on the shelf, it actually aged quite nicely. Perhaps because Beire and Hurley focused on concepts and technologies rather than products, perhaps the most important of which is focus on the infrastructure of the home–you can always change the endpoints, and what gets attached to them later. As Briere says, “that’s really what the goal of the book was: to put together a big picture view, and almost a design paradigm for people when they were trying to approach the topic of a home for 20 or 30 years. You know, people will put a 20 or 30-year roof on their house, but they don’t think about that when they come to do their wiring, or things they put in the wall.
“And that was one of things that we really wanted to get into people’s heads” Briere emphasizes. “Put something into the wall that will last 20, 30, 40 years, and worry about what you put on the endpoints later on. Because once the infrastructure is in the walls, you can change the endpoints and you can have all sorts of flexibility in the endpoints. But if you rip out walls later on, it gets really expensive.”
Perhaps one reason for their emphasis of home telecommunication networks, is that unlike many home automation experts who come at home automation through their mastery of home-based technologies, it was in the telecommunication industry that Danny and Pat have made their careers, prior to writing Smart Homes for Dummies. Briere is CEO of TeleChoice, Inc., which he started in 1985. “Today, just about every major telecom player in the world is our client,” he says. And Pat Hurley is a consultant and DSL analyst for Telechoice.
Thinking Outside the Box
This background has helped them to come up with a number of ideas that are “outside of the box” of the traditional home automation industry.
It also grew out of a practical need to expand their own knowledge base. In the mid-1990s, Briere began to renovate his then recently purchased house in Maine, to convert it into what he calls a “‘vacation home for the next sixty years’ type of place”. Briere often spends a month at a time both working out of there, and spending time with his family. (His primary residence is near the University of Connecticut, where Briere’s wife is an assistant research professor.)
When Briere began to ask his contractor about what would be needed for a sophisticated home office in his vacation home, Briere says, “he didn’t know anything. And we started talking to all sorts of people, and we went to various stereo stores, and other people, and couldn’t really find anybody who knew anything.”
Fortunately, Briere says that Pat Hurley, his friend and associate, “has a lot of background in tinkering and he’s just very, very knowledgeable on the whole computer and networking side of the equation. It became almost a hobby trying to figure out how could fix up my house. Finally we said, ‘You know what? We learned all this great stuff.’ At the time, we couldn’t find any books on the topic, and we said, ‘why don’t we write a book on the topic?!’
And the rest is home automation history. Because Briere and Hurely and written previous books for IDG, Smart Homes for Dummies was put on the fast track for publication, and originally released in mid-1999. While it’s aged very well, because of Briere and Hurely’s emphasis on building a wiring infrastructure, rather than emphasizing the technology that’s attached to it, obviously, the bursting of the dot.com bubble has put a crimp in some of their recommendations. On a more positive note, since its initial 1999 publication, 802.11 wireless networking technologies have exploded (and their prices have dropped dramatically), and this new version of Smart Homes For Dummies reflects that as well.
Rounding Things Out
For other looks at technology, consider TechTV’s Catalog of Tomorrow and Cabling: A Complete Guide to Network Wiring, both of which make nice companions to Smart Homes For Dummies.
Cabling: A Complete Guide to Network Wiring, while much more technical than Smart Homes for Dummies, is a thorough, and heavily illustrated guide towards creating a structured Ethernet wiring system. With its hardcover and 808 pages, it’s also an excellent doorstop or hurricane-strength paperweight-but there’s a lot of knowledge in between those covers. Installing a home Ethernet, such as Briere and Hurley recommend isn’t that difficult (if I can do it, you can, too), and this book is an excellent guide to the technology.
While Cabling: A Complete Guide to Network Wiring is about as in-depth an analysis of a single technology as you can get, TechTV’s Catalog of Tomorrow
is a fun “3000 mile view” of a variety of coming future technologies. Similar to Wired’s Reality Check from 1996, however, it’s much more detailed and thorough (if also a bit less fun). Any budding futurist would enjoy this book, although its environmental section is–at least to this skeptic–tainted by political correctness run amok. (Tech Central Station needs to do a libertarian version of this type of book-and fast!)
Delayed, But Far From Dead
Because of the dot.com collapse, it’s easy to think that the Internet, and the technologies that it empowers is old news. But most of the future trends in each major area of home automation that Briere and Hurley first wrote about in 1999 are slowly coming to fruition, including HDTVand interactive TV, smart appliances, more advanced phone systems, and integrating home automation with the the Internet. As TechTV’s Catalog of Tomorrow points out, there will be even more. And these books are a great way to get a home–and its owners–prepared to let them all in with everything but coffee and cheesecake for the welcoming party.