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The Dominant Smart Grid UI Will Be Mobile

By Ian Bowman - Associate Director of Technical Products

For most people, the user interface for smart grid over the next 10 years will not be a glowing Energy Orb or a smart thermostat. It won’t even be a typical laptop computer screen. I think it will be a smartphone. Why?

  • Handheld devices are a normal progression of computing technology. Better, faster, cheaper, and smaller—it’s what technologies do. The adoption of 3G and 4G wireless for handheld devices is now in full swing in the U.S., and much of the developed world is even further along the adoption curve. In a few years, small touch screens will be everywhere that matters (from an energy management perspective).
  • The market for the energy management user interface is still very young in the maturity curve, so there isn’t an 800-pound gorilla of a competitor that already owns mindshare.
  • The adoption of smartphone hardware is cross-subsidized by other stuff. Let’s be honest, asking people to pay $300 for an energy-specific user interface at home is a high hurdle. However, once they’re already spending $70 per month for unlimited use, it’s easy to add functionality.
  • The proximity of user to the user interface matters more than the proximity of the user interface to the energy-consuming equipment. Consider how often a person will be near their Energy Orb when it starts glowing, near their smart thermostat when it flashes a request to curtail, or even within range of their laptop compared with how often they’ll be near their smartphone. On the “people” side of managing energy, it’s about managing habits, standard operating procedures, and knowledge. You have to meet people where they are.
  • Our phones already have us well trained to react to their interruptions. We expect these devices to inform us when something needs our attention via e-mails, texts, LinkedIn notices, meeting notices, and even an occasional phone call.
  • The software design aesthetic used in handheld devices seems more suited for every-day energy management than PC software design aesthetic. After interrupting us, handheld applications seek to provide just the right amount of additional information necessary to make a decision and get on with our day—who is calling, does the meeting fit into our calendar, etc. Contrast that with PCs, where the design aesthetic often seems to drift toward the assumption that people are hunkered down at their desk and want infinite ability to drill down through seven layers of charts upon charts arrayed across several monitors. Don’t get me wrong, deep energy analysis software may well be appropriate for a tiny handful of people who are managing energy use, but even most Fortune 500 energy managers wear so many hats that this isn’t a realistic picture of their world.
  • Last, but not least, it’s worth considering that someone may even figure out how to tap the “fun factor” potential in energy management. Handheld devices blur the lines between personal lives and work and between work and fun. Few people would whip out their work laptop to play Angry Birds, but on a smartphone, well ... 200 million downloads. So, I have to believe that sometime in the next few years, some smart person will figure out how to make an energy conservation game in which kids get points, stickers, or credits for music downloads when they help out during curtailment programs. Then this will surely be followed shortly by some other smart person who will figure out how that translates to corporations.

I will return to this topic in an upcoming post to describe some scenarios I plan to kick around with colleagues like Matt Burks (@ESourceMatt) and a handful of corporate energy managers. If you’re working on similar issues and would like to discuss them, feel free to contact me.

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