Developers Cubed: Switch Automation

Gizmodo's Developers Cubed series offers a behind the scenes look into Australia’s up and coming dev scene. This week: We chat with Hugh from Switch Automation, a cloud-based building automation company, about the popularity of Angry Birds, using the App store for marketing and how HTML5 will change their business .

Developers! Developers! Developers! It's not just Steve Ballmer’s favourite sweat-laden catchcry! If you'd like to be featured in Developers Cubed, shoot a note to freelance.broughall at I'd love to hear from you.

Who are you and where do you work?

My name is Hugh and I work for Switch Automation, a company that was founded by John Darlington and Deb Noller in 2005. Switch is a small but growing company with six staff at the moment. We're based in Sydney but have a global growth strategy.

Why do we know you? What have you created?

Switch Automation is developing a cloud based building automation suite that controls intercom, lighting, security and HVAC (air con) subsystems as well as tracking energy consumption by use of smart meters. By putting energy monitoring together with control we are able to help the user cut their energy bills. The system runs on a small gateway box that connects your home or building to the cloud. This can then be controlled from an in wall touch screen, iPad or web interface, both locally or from anywhere in the world.

We realised that an apartment building would have a lot of different systems, air-conditioning, security, intercom and lights all with their own little controller on the wall and their own cabling system. So Switch saw the opportunity to use off the shelf products that have network connections and combine them all in to one easy to use user interface.

In the past Switch relied on a server to run the systems but this was problematic because it was very expensive and nearly impossible to keep everyone on the same software version, this meant it was only for high end homes. 2 years ago we took the bold move to scrap that system and start again - this time building it in the cloud. This meant a shift to a subscription model and a focus on energy saving technology and remote control and monitoring. We have just released version 1 and so far the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

What platforms do you develop for? iOS, XP embedded, MeeGo/Linux, HTML5 and Silverlight. We are hardware neutral so our aim is to be assessable on all devices. Our forthcoming development in HTML5 will be key to expanding device compatibility.

What are you working on right now? At this stage we are focused on apartment complexes. You will see the system popping up in new developments in Sydney and Melbourne this year. The system runs over standard data cables so it cuts cost for installers that would typically run a different cable for each of the buildings sub-systems.

We are also putting a lot of effort into the user’s web portal. This is where a user can log in to control their apartment remotely or change automation settings. We will be launching a web store shortly that will allow users and systems integrators to buy equipment and set up their service contracts.

How did you get into development? Personally I’m not I programmer - I do the bug testing and QA. John, our lead programmer, always wanted to be a programmer from a young age. After watching Sci-Fi he knew he wanted to be involved with computers. Living as a North Queensland potato farmer, he saved his potato picking money - and in 1983 got himself a PC - and he's been programming ever since.

What do you think about the rise and rise of App Stores? How has it influenced your titles? The Apple app store has been a great advertising tool for us. We have been able to launch an app that was an interactive demo of what the switch platform could do. This has been great for going into a meeting with a potential client and giving them a demo.

At the moment it seems like everyone has an app in the app store, even Samsung has an app store for their new fridges. We want our user interface to be everywhere - even on your fridge. The big issue is that we just don't have the resources to redo our UI app for every platform, so I think in the next few years we will see more apps moving over to HTML5 and devices browser becoming much better. We are also seeing people like Intel let you submit HTML5 app and they will convert it to a .EXE file. I think this type of thing will become more common place because it means you can still get the app from the app store or just go to the website and get the same experience.

What's your favourite app that you didn't create? I just ask this question around the office and they all yelled out Angry Birds. But then they thought about and said Shazam, Sports-Tracker and I'm sure one of them would say command prompt but wouldn't admit it.

What phone do you use? Why? I use a Nokia N9 because I’m a serious fan of Nokia and open source not the new Windows Phone stuff. Everyone else in the office is ether on WindowsPhone7 or iPhone.

What advice do you have for budding Aussie developers out there? Learn a programming language/development that can be used on as many different platforms as possible, like most things I think it more about having a great idea and being passionate about it are keys to being successful. Also having a breadth of knowledge that allows specialization in a particular area, rather than competing with programming resources offshore.

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