Software is arguably the most important part of any home automation system. It serves as the backbone for everything else, and as such it has to be reliable, feature-rich, and well supported. Unfortunately, that often means that it is also expensive. However, there are a few really excellent options out there.
Activehome is the basic home automation software available through X10, a manufacturer of home automation hardware (and the source of those annoying popup ads for mini spy cams). It usually comes bundled with some kind of computer interface (for more on these, see the Hardware section).
It’s great if you want to be able to switch things on and off from your computer, or if you want basic timer functions. The Activehome application is very friendly for beginners–it has lots of attractive little abstractions, like switches and dials to represent different lights and modules. Comparing HA software to computers, Activehome would be like the Mac–loaded with eye candy and capable of performing basic functions very well. It’s available here: Activehome.
I started out using Activehome, mostly because I wasn’t aware that better options existed. Again, it works well for very basic things, and you can buy plugins that extend it, allowing you to control x10 cameras or access the program from the web. However, beyond a certain point, Activehome is very hands off–it doesn’t allow you to get under the hood and mess with internal settings, or add extensions of your own. For that, you need…
To me, Powerhome is kind of the holy grail of automation software. It’s relatively cheap ($70), mind-bogglingly feature rich, and extremely well supported. Although it has a shallow learning curve, it can do nearly anything, and it interfaces with nearly any other program. It’s got built in voice recognition and text to speech, macros, timers, support for various controllers, email software, stuff for serial port communications, a web interface (complete with built-in server), jukebox control, IR support, and undoubtably many other things I’ve yet to even find.
Powerhome is without a doubt designed for advanced users. To continue the comptuer analogy, if Activehome is a Mac, then Powerhome is a PC running Linux (except that it isn’t free).
One of the best things about Powerhome is the community that has grown up around it. The Powerhome Message Board is full of people who develop interesting uses for the application, and they usually respond to questions within minutes.
After spending a lot of time working with Powerhome, I’ve developed with it the sort of love/hate relationship that marks any interaction between a human and a good piece of software. Powerhome can sometimes be completely unintuititive, and occasionally it flat out refuses to obey you, but I can’t imagine building an HA system without it.
In building a system, you invariably end up needing other software applications to perform cool functions and connect to devices.
For weather monitoring, I recommend Virtual Weather Station. It supports a lot of common weather stations, and it exports data in a format that Powerhome can use. I go into more detail about it in the Sensing section.
Another good program is Dorgem. It adds basic webcam support to your computer, and it’s free. There’s more about it in the Surveillance sections.