Buildings are the New iPhones

Over the last year and a half, we’ve been working on our BETI proposal to facilitate this region becoming the leader in building energy efficiency software. A big part of our optimism for the success of this endeavor is the mix of clean tech entrepreneurship and software development expertise that this region is already known for.

But I had a major realization on Friday that, in many ways, I wasn’t seeing the forest for the trees. The most exciting prospects for our region are not to wire buildings so that their energy use can be controlled; the most exciting prospects are to wire buildings such that everything can be controlled. And in our open source society, it’s not going to just be large companies developing software to manage building activities…it’s going to be everyone.

Buildings are the new iPhones.

One of the major issues that we heard about when we were interviewing entrepreneurs for the BETI project was the concern about programming languages. That is, folks were worried that the software they developed to manage, say, the HVAC system in a building wouldn’t be able to talk to the software that someone else developed to run the lighting. And, under the theory that buildings are whole systems that need to be fully integrated to maximize effectiveness, that would be a problem. In fact, one of the ideas raised for BETI was to be responsible for helping to standardize the platforms for building energy efficiency automation technology.

Of course, as this region knows all too well, becoming the dominant operating system is big business; MS-DOS and Windows made us who we are today. And similarly, we’ve suffered somewhat as new platforms emerged that didn’t rely on those operating systems: iPhones and Androids and Tablets, oh my! And even as Microsoft is figuring out how to energize the developer community around their mobile platform, they’re probably also trying to figure out what the next new disruptive technology will be. In other words, what’s the next major technology that will need an operating system and who’s going to be the dominant provider of that platform? To some extent, the answer is cars, and Microsoft is probably the leader in that field with its Sync technology…and they’ve got a developer center up and running, which I assume is for folks to create apps on that platform. But I think the much bigger opportunity (literally and literally) is buildings.

I mean, think about what you could do with a fully wired building: 1) control building energy efficiency, definitely, but also create the apps that allow 2) your refrigerator to order milk from the store when you’re out, 3) integrate your whole home theater audio/visual system – downloading new songs and movies to your tv, computer…or wall?, 4) analyze your closet for deficiencies in appropriate clothing for the weather or the latest fashion trends, and 5) even entertain/monitor your pets. Why does this matter? For three reasons. First, if one of our local companies is the dominant OS provider, then great for our economy. Second, if we can harness all the innovation and entrepreneurship in our region, we could also create the next major cluster of building app developers, all in cool loft spaces in Pioneer Square or University Place. Third, if we become the building energy efficiency software and automation technology hub, it’ll facilitate our strength in the rest of the building app space too. So, BETI is actually a first step into an even bigger market that we originally envisioned.

In the future, the response to the question “how do I use decrease energy use in my building?” will be “there’s an app for that, and it’s made by a Puget Sound company.”

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