The risky side of smart connected energy

TRP: What are the key considerations when developing connected home applications for the utilities sector?

AP: Consumer-facing and back-end considerations are equally important. In both scenarios, software quality is now playing an increasingly important role, and the sheer pace of change in the energy sector puts the need for high quality into sharp relief.

At the consumer end, my team has found that the interfaces and usability of devices used by consumers are especially critical. Quite simply, if a device is difficult to use, consumers are unlikely to spend the time learning how to use it.

Integration is the key issue at the back-end. CRM and billing are at the heart of utility company operations, and here the usual terminology – 'end-to-end' integration – really is important. The last thing an energy company wants is to lose the immense value and potential new business those new apps and mobile communications can bring.

The smooth integration of core IT systems and customer communications is critical. Again, this is a mission for software quality.

TRP: What sorts of testing will energy suppliers need to conduct to ensure success?

AP: Testing usability of devices is critical, especially as many will be new to the market. Repeat testing on a range of browsers and testing on different mobile screens is vital. A test lab that simulates real-world use is a useful approach for ensuring that software and devices are evaluated in realistic environments.

Companies are also likely to trial devices with selected customers to improve the test lifecycle by ensuring that usability and functionality are optimised in the home environment ahead of full launch. When rolling out trials, careful planning and consideration is required as the results are highly valuable if they identify defects that cannot be detected in a test lab environment.

For smart metering in particular, large energy suppliers must be ready for Data Communications Company (DCC) interface testing in autumn 2015. Interfaces and back-end systems will have to be tested to ensure they can handle the load as it increases throughout the rollout.

The multivendor, mixed hardware/software environment of the smart meter programme requires testing coordination and risk management of a high order, given the government's interest in the programme and the past experience with other high profile IT projects, such as the NHS IT system.

TRP: What do you predict for connected homes in the next ten years?

AP: Ultimately, the energy companies that get it right with consumer-driven, secure, flexible, fast development of connected devices will have all manner of business opportunities open to them over the next decade.

For energy suppliers today many connected energy systems are proprietary applications based on customised hardware. However, other technology vendors are starting to enter the lucrative energy market with products such as Apple's HomeKit.

Therefore, I predict increased competition, the growth of open platforms, the potential for agile smaller companies to take market share, greater innovation as suppliers gain a better understanding of customers, and consumers who feel more in control of energy consumption.

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.