Smart Buildings

Making The Case For Open Source User Experience in Smart Buildings

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Last week, Memoori spoke to Jonathan McFarlane, Co-Founder of ACAEngine, an open source smart building platform provider. During the Free Webinar entitled "Embracing an Open Source Philosophy for Better UX in Buildings" McFarlane talked in detail about how to design an “open” smart building by selecting the right dependencies, and how an open source approach leads to better user experience (UX).

“Open source is basically a license model, a distribution model, as well as a community of users, contributors, and maintainers,” explained McFarlane, before pointing out that “all of us are users of open source, whether we realize it or not.” Most of the technology platforms and products we use are generally utilizing some element of the open source approach. It may be the database or the operating system, for example, it wouldn’t have to be the entire system.

As smart buildings become more modern, and more technology companies enter the building industry, they are bringing the use of open source along with them from their native IT and software development spaces. McFarlane is certainly right behind that evolution, especially for the benefit of user experience in the building, where he maintains a philosophy that “everything should be open.”

“I’m not saying you need to have an open source technology or platform,” he reiterates. “Building access control doesn’t need to be entirely open source, for example, but it certainly needs to be open to some level when it comes to integration.”

Non-open issues arise if, say, you have 200 devices spread through a building project and one of them requires an non-disclosure agreement (NDA) to get access. That one vendor asking for an NDA slows the entire process down and adds unnecessary risk. McFarlane believes we can probably find an alternative that suits everyone, supports their mutual goals for the building, and the only reason he sees for companies resisting open source is because they must be hiding something.

“The companies that don't let us integrate and take time to give us the API documentation are hiding something that they don't want people to know, such as passwords in plain text or inefficiencies you wouldn’t expect in modern technologies,” McFarlane suggests.

“It's not asking for much, it's asking for integration into their products. In my experience a company that does not have open integration is either hiding bad tech or cannot get their head around software business models,” he says. “The latter is more those businesses that are just burying their head in the sand and hoping to run the same business models without adapting to software, and typically that’s the hardware companies.”

There are also many misconceptions about open source across the business world. Many, for example, associate open source with “free” or think that open source projects cannot have a successful commercial business model, but that has been proved wrong time and time again. Recently, open source provider Red Hat was acquired by IBM for $32 billion, proving that it is certainly possible to develop business models around open source. GitHub is another company that has a commercial model around something that is open source, highlighted when it was acquired by Microsoft.

Open source is not some kind of charitable software initiative, it is an approach to integration that could facilitate better collaboration across multifaceted building systems. A system built around an open source approach can, for example, create a seamless experience for the user as they move from one activity to another, one room to another, or even building to building. UX is arguably the central element of buildings, but also another topic dominated by misconceptions.

“User experience is not user interface - UX is not UI - and the UX integration is potentially much greater when we have access to things that are open source,” states McFarlane “All the documentation means we can run experiments, not affecting anything, and then apply that thinking to things in the building that need to be integrated with. Integration methods should be as open as possible, they don’t have to be open source but they should be open.”

“If we have that, then user experience can go in a completely new direction. We don't have to be stuck to UI. We need to start thinking about what is the best user experience. Apply open thinking to everything, link everything, have any system interact with any other, and that can lead to better user journeys” urges McFarlane.

“[Today] users move from one interface to the other because its a closed system that is easy to sell, and also easy to buy because it doesn't require much thinking. It's a sort of lazy. Why does every room have a room booking panel? Is another touch panel the best experience for this space? No it's not. It's a should be more automatic, more seamless.”

Comfort and workplace wellness have also become vitally important for buildings. How the air quality, lighting levels, the different types of spaces available, match to your activity, enable you to be more productive at work. How workflow can be automated, and how buildings can make occupants happy. Also, for greater personalization because smart buildings can be intimidating environment. By taking an open approach to UX we can we have some level of ownership and some personalization that helps the building achieve its goals.

“You don’t have to open source your whole stack of technology but if you want to survive and be selected by companies that are embracing open thinking, you need to have open integration methods,” McFarlane says. “If the vendors can get to that point then there’s no reason not to use their products, but for most vendors it’s not a technical issue, it’s a business issue. They need to disrupt their own business models to really embrace this. They are too used to just selling a box.”

Traditional business processes where vendors sell their off-the-shelf product through set channels are dying out. Today, modern business has opened up to integration to add new channels. These new channels also contribute to the integration. If vendors have elements of that integration open sourced, and have community around that, then everything gets more service based rather than product based. That is the open-source world at McFarlane hopes for.

“Vendors should at least focus on what they are happy with opening up, and that should be integration. If they can go even further and start contributing to open source projects that’s better for the industry as a whole,” McFarlane concludes. “Imagine if we had some core components, shared between vendors, open sourced so everyone can build their products on top of that. Then you would have a building where everything is literally talking the same language… that would be the dream. I doubt we can have that soon, but let’s at least open the integration methods.”

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