William Scholes: Get ready for the smarthome and the internet of things - unless you're in rural Northern Ireland

Soon we will all be able to control our homes from our smartphones and tablets - wherever we are

IT may have escaped your notice, probably because it has happened so gradually, but we now live in a world in which mobile phones are smarter than most of the people who use them.

It's hard to pin down the exact moment in time that the smartphone crossed over from novelty to ubiquity.

Maybe it was when your granny got her first Apple iPhone, or when your father sought your advice on apps without asking what an 'app' even was.

Whatever it was for you, the transition from brick-like Nokia handsets to slender iPhones has been painless and all but imperceptible, like our eyes adjusting from daylight to dusk to nightfall.

That picture doesn't quite work, though. The arrival of the smartphone - and its sibling, the tablet - is not supposed to herald darkness.

Instead, it's a new dawn - fresh and bright and sunny and shiny - in which 'phone' is just about the last thing you will actually use your smartphone for.

Now our houses are joining in. They are getting themselves some GCSEs and A-levels and becoming 'smarthomes'.

If you have wifi at home and are already armed with a smartphone, then you're already a step towards getting yourself a 'smarter' home.

For example, with the right app on my phone, I can control my Sky box from many miles away.

As someone who only rarely enjoys the privilege of being able to wield the remote control in my own living room, this is revolutionary stuff.

Using the app, I can set programmes to record, delete them from something known as 'the planner' and even turn the box off and on.

I am sufficiently ignorant of what actually makes all this possible to be amazed that it does indeed work.

Now our houses are joining the smartphones. They are getting themselves some GCSEs and A-levels and becoming 'smarthomes' 

That I can do it right now, from here at my desk in the Irish News - where my eyes are bathed with a view that has been compared to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon almost as often as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon have been compared to the Irish News car park - is the Smarties on the icing on the cake.

However, being able to find out how many episodes of Bear Grylls' Survival School, Ninjago or Horrid Henry have been downloaded in my absence is ultimately a bit inconsequential.

Far more useful is something like a smart heating system. I've taken a deep breath and invested in such a thing.

No simple timer or single thermostat here - each radiator now has its own 'smart' valve which measures the room's temperature and works out how much the valve needs to open or close to maintain a target temperature setting for a given time of day.

The valves 'talk' to the boiler, which in turn is connected to wifi. This means it is able to monitor the weather and even the angle of the sun, and adjust itself accordingly.

The wifi link also allows all the valves and the boiler to be controlled by a base station in the house and from a suitably rigged smartphone or tablet, even when I am sitting amidst the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Something called 'geofencing' means that you can tell the heating system to do certain things - warm up the bathroom, for example - when you are within a certain distance of home.

Other digital voodoo means the various bits and pieces 'learn' how long it takes each room to heat up and cool down and how we use each room when we are at home. It even seems to know when a window is open, which is just spooky.

Do a Google search for "smarthome" - you don't need to use your smartphone to do this - and you will find all manner of gadgets to make your home 'smarter'.

Lights, door locks and cameras seem to be among the most popular, and can be plugged together in all sorts of dizzying combinations.

This is especially the case if you use something called IFTTT - which, as you may know, stands for 'If this then that': "If my phone says it is 500 metres from home, then turn on the front door and hall lights," and so on.

This is the 'internet of things' in action, the arrival of the brave new digital Tomorrow's World in which your fridge can not only tell you that you are low on milk but also add it to your shopping list. Or bypass you altogether and simply order it from Sainsbury's directly.

To make all this work properly requires decent broadband.

This is far from a given in Northern Ireland where, according to Ofcom's Connected Nations report from December 2016, 68,000 homes - around 8 per cent of all properties - were unable to get the sort of broadband speeds that a smarthome needs to be smart.

Get out of Belfast and other urban areas and the situation declines markedly, with a quarter of rural homes unable to get broadband fast enough to meet what Ofcom reckons is a typical household's digital needs.

Even so, it is easy to imagine a not-too-distant future in which all our homes will be 'smart'. As with the smartphone, the smarthome will be everywhere almost before we realise it.

And hopefully there will still be space for the humble, infinitely versatile and - occasionally, anyway - smart newspaper...

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