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$100 iRule Could be Next Big Thing in Cloud-Based Home Automation

CE 100 iRule

Starting at $100 for software and $100 for hardware, iRule cloud-based home automation works great as a DIY remote control or as a professionally installed system for large commercial jobs. See it at CEDIA 2013.

iRule started out in 2009 as a couple of “enthusiast geeks” making iOS-based remote controls for do-it-yourselfers. Today, the Detroit-based company is one of the biggest sleepers in home automation and commercial integration with thousands of installs in homes, conference rooms, sports bars, retail showrooms, yachts and numerous other venues.

Starting at $50, the iRule software (for iOS and Android) is written for networking gear from Global Cache, which provides every manner of two-way modules for IP (wired and Wi-Fi), RS-232, IR and relay controls for roughly $100 apiece.

So enthusiasts can create a nice little one-way IR remote for their iOS or Android devices for about $150.

A good two-way solution for controlling and monitoring audio, video, security, lighting, thermostats, motorized shades and other systems starts at a mere $100 for the iRule Pro software, plus some optional plug-ins, plus a few hundred dollars for Global Cache hardware. Even then, we’re talking maybe $1,000 to $3,000 for a complete system, sans labor of course.

But is it any good? You can be the judge at CEDIA Expo 2013, where iRule is showcasing its existing products and its first piece of hardware (coming soon in another story).

Let me just say that iRule is the most extensible, least risky home-control platform I’ve seen. You can start small with a simple remote and build up to solutions that control thousands of devices. If the company ever goes out of business – doubtful—the off-the-shelf hardware can be repurposed and the software is likely to be supported for a long time via an active user community.

The iRule System

I met recently with iRule founder Itai Ben-Gal in Detroit and spent some time with the system.

I can understand the allure. iRule provides numerous templates for the do-it-yourselfer and custom installer. The templates – both the user interface and the programming logic—can be modified or users can start from scratch, “so it is the best of both worlds,” says Tom Morgan, CTO of Worthington Distribution, which distributes the system.

Going with modified templates allows dealers to install lots of systems quickly in a cookie-cutter-kind-of-way that can still look different from job to job. It gives customers the impression that their system is unique, “so they really can’t price-shop,” says Ben-Gal.

Despite its DIY roots, iRule can rival the richest of pro-centric home automation systems with extremely flexible interfaces and a wealth of programming options.

“They started out with an excellent focus on A/V control,” says Morgan. “However, they have now moved towards two-way drag-and-drop drivers for connectivity partners.”

Virtually all of the popular audio, video and control brands are supported, as well as some other brands you don’t always see in high-performance automation systems – like Roku, Boxee, Plex, Popcorn Hour, XBMC, Sky, Shinybow (huh?), Insteon, Sonos and Belkin Wemo (partial list of supported devices here).

The day I visited, iRule was demonstrating integration with Nest thermostats even though Nest has not yet released an open API.

Furthermore, iRule supports full-featured home automation systems like MiCasa Verde and HAI (now Leviton Security & Automation ).

So if you use Leviton (HAI) for security, lighting control and energy management, for example, you can integrate those controls into a complete cloud-based whole-home audio/video/automation system.

It is undoubtedly the best HAI add-on ever, and it’s a wonder not every single HAI dealer is using it.

iRule charges $25 for the HAI module, as it does with some of its other software modules, but more on theinteresting pricing formula later.

With a rich database of supported devices and the flexibility of its software, iRule has won numerous commercial integration jobs over its more recognizable rivals.

Ben-Gal showed me the user interface for an iRule system used by a race track to monitor and control some 200 TVs with an iPad. The TVs can be arranged on the screen in a number of ways, allowing easy access to individual or groups of displays. Designing the system was as simple as dragging the TV icons on the iRule Builder programming editor.

Earlier, I called iRule the most extensible, least risky home automation system I’ve seen. That’s because it is modular, requiring no proprietary hardware. Instead, iRule uses palm-sized Global Cache adapters that cost roughly $100 each. Want to add an RS-232-controllable A/V receiver to a system? That’ll be $95 (retail) forGlobal Cache iTach IP2SL TCP/IP to Serial adapter. (Obviously IP-controllable subsystems don’t require network adapters).

To be sure, there are scores of developers today writing home automation software for Global Cache, BitWiseand other low-cost network-enabling controllers (Roomie Remote is a popular one; see them at CEDIA).

But iRule seems unstoppable. The product is good, Ben-Gal is hungry and the company is funded and credible.

“Even before we quit our day jobs,” says Ben-Gal, “we were selling systems. We already had 1,000 customers.”

The Cloud, Compuware and Credibility

Although iRule started life in the basement of a geek who didn’t like the existing remote controls on the market – like where all these things begin – the company looks all grown up now, with 12 full-time employees and a real office.

Today iRule shares space with Compuware, the massive IT service provider, in downtown Detroit, where I had to pass through Mossad-worthy sentinels and other security measures to get to the iRule office.

The tight security is required for Compuware’s Tier 4 data centers upstairs, which are encased in layers upon layers of bullet-proof glass. There, the IT giant stores sensitive corporate and government data and powers 12 of the top 20 most visited U.S. Websites.

Of the top 50 Fortune 500 companies, 46 use Compuware.

And so does iRule, which enjoys some backing from its landlord.

Clearly security and uptime shouldn’t be a concern for customers of iRule’s cloud-based service. Programming is done in the cloud; applications are processed and served via the cloud.

Also in the cloud, iRule users and programmers can share their software modules and templates with each other – which the DIY and dealer community has embraced.

“Once the commands are working, a dealer can share them to the iRule community saving the next dealer a tremendous amount of time,” Morgan says. “Best of all, everything is in the cloud so all updates and changes are in real time.”

On Complicated Pricing, Pros and DIY

iRule is one of the few companies I’ve seen that has successfully made the leap from DIY to pro. The company serves both sectors.

Many professional integrators pooh-pooh products of DIY ancestry … which can be a big mistake. Who would you rather beta-test products – yourself of little time and patience, or an enthusiast who might stay up all night playing with the stuff? (AVSForum so far has nearly 9,000 posts on iRule.)

“DIYers love to tweak,” says Ben-Gal, rightly. “We’ve learned stuff that is off the charts. They have no issue giving feedback directly.”

In fact, it was a do-it-yourselfer who created the Belkin Wemo driver – mind you, Belkin still has not opened its API – and then shared it with the community.

In the case of dealers, however, by the time a manufacturer gets feedback, it has been filtered through techs, product managers, owners and the fog of time.

Now, let’s get to pricing.

iRule has a somewhat confusing price structure, the likes of which killed Life-Ware (among other things).

There’s iRule Basic ($50) for anyone, and iRule Pro ($100) for authorized dealers only.

Purchased licenses don’t expire and they include updates and improvements. Templates and most drivers are included in the price, but some of the more advanced modules (iTunes, Lutron, HAI, Z-Wave, Sonos and others) cost $25 each.

The licensing fees include a certain number of “handsets” (what IT guys might call seats) – three for Basic and five for Pro. Additional handsets are $15 each.

The “per handset” fee is not per smart device, but per person. If you personally use iRule on an iPad, iPhone and Android tablet … that comprises a single handset.

In fact, iRule’s ecosystem revolves around the person, not the room or the device.

“It used to be one remote per TV,” says Ben-Gal. “We designed our system around the person instead of the room. That way, the dealer can interview everyone in the home for greater engagement.”

Licenses also include a certain number of controlled devices – 15 for Basic and 25 for Pro. Additional devices are $7 each. Note that a system like HAI, which might control multiple subsystems, counts only as a single device in the iRule pricing structure.

The Pro version gives you other features that Basic does not, such as two-way feedback. The comparison chart is here.

While the pricing structure is unusual for this industry, at least it keeps to the theme of modularity and flexibility. Since the add-ons are so cheap, though, I’m sure integrators would rather pay a flat fee for simplicity’s sake. But that’s just not the way it is.

As for the modest pricing, “I’m selling stuff for less expensive not so dealers can put more money in their pocket [from the software], but so they can sell more products,” says Ben-Gal. “Nobody brags about their remotes, but they do brag about big amps.”

Dealers can purchase iRule through distributors like Worthington, which also provides training and support. Or else integrators can obtain authorization through iRule (here).

“All of the installer’s billing and account information is stored in a portal account so the dealer never has to look for a file,” Morgan says. “All they need is a Web browser and access to the Internet.”

I concur with Morgan’s parting words: “Keep your eye on iRule. They are doing really good things.”