ust about every night when I get home from work, our little Scottish terrier Sherlock is there waiting to greet me.
He doesn't run to the door, but I can see he's glowing with anticipation at my arrival.
Literally, Sherlock is glowing when I get home.
Actually, most nights I presume he's glowing when I am 180 metres away, at the boundary of a rule I have set that turns on the lights as I approach the house. For, alas, we don't have a real dog, just an electric "Scotty Dog Light" that I have plugged into my WeMo home automation system.
The WeMo system, made by the networking and computer accessories company Belkin, is a portfolio of very-easy-to-install power switches, light switches, web cams, light globes and motion sensors that all have Wi-Fi built into them (or in the case of the light globes, another wireless technology known as ZigBee, which connects to a Wi-Fi bridge), that enables them to be controlled by an app that runs on your phone.
There's now also a metered power point, known as the WeMo Insight Switch, which not only allows you to turn devices on and off remotely, but also measures how much power the devices are using, and shows your consumption either as a summary in the phone app or as a 30-minute-interval spreadsheet you can download onto your phone.
It's not the broadest portfolio of home automation products, though Belkin does plan to release security motion sensors, keychain fobs that announce your presence to the house, door and window sensors, even siren detectors that relay fire and gas alerts to your mobile phone, that will help to make it much more complete
And nor is it the most sophisticated home automation system. You can set rules that combine, say, the motion sensor and the switch, that will turn on a light if movement is detected and if the sun has set but not yet risen, and then leave the light on for ten minutes after it detects the last movement, but that's the most sophisticated rule you can do.
But what's brilliant about the WeMo system is, it's one of the most compatible systems out there, and it's very popular, so many other apps and devices work with it. It works with the internet-based automation system If This Then That (IFTTT), which is how I was able to get Sherlock to switch on as I approach home: the IFTTT app running on my mobile phone triggers a rule on the IFTTT server when my location is within 181 metres of my house, and the IFTTT server communicates with my Insight plug to switch it on.
The trouble with IFTTT is that it can only cope with one condition at a time. You can create an IFTTT "recipe" that turns your WeMo switches on when it's dark, based on the official sunset and sunrise times for your location, and you can create a recipe that turns a WeMo switch on as your approach your house, but you can't create a recipe that turns the switch on as you approach, but only if it's dark outside. It's a gaping (and slightly absurd) weakness in the IFTTT system. That, and it's not 100 per cent reliable, which you sort of need in an automation system.
Belkin is doing what it can to enable IFTTT-type conditions in its slightly more sophisticated automation engine – the motion sensor rule I mentioned above, that only turns the light on when it's dark outside, was inspired by IFTTT – but it's only a drop in the ocean of what you could do if IFTTT only allowed you to gang conditions together the way it should.
But all is not lost on that front, either. Because Belkin has sensibly designed the WeMo platform so that it's visible to third-party devices on your home network (Belkin says it's holding back some features from third-party access, but all the features that matter seem to be available at this stage), there are very sophisticated home automation platforms available that can control your WeMo devices, as well as myriad other devices such as air conditioners, hifis, watering systems and even TVs, all within the context of a proper, fully programmable rules framework.
Using an open-source automation platform such as openHAB 2, for instance, you'd be able to set up a rule that paused your Sonos hifi and dimmed your WeMo lights in your living room when you turned on your Samsung TV, but only if it's night time and only if no one else is home, and simultaneously turned on your garden sprinklers, but only if Yahoo Weather hasn't reported rain in your location in the last 24 hours.
openHAB 2, which looks to me like the most promising of the free, open-source home automation platforms, also provides you with a web-based interface for WeMo, which Belkin itself has neglected to build. Its Android and iOS apps are very good – they're easy to use and reliable – but a web interface wouldn't hurt. In the few weeks I've been reviewing the WeMo system, there have been countless times I've had a PC in front of me, but not a phone, and I've had to hunt around for my phone just to turn the dog off.
The thing about openHAB 2, though, is it's still a work in progress. It's only at the alpha stage at the moment (that is, it's not even a beta!), and its developer tells me it won't be ready for beta release till the end of the year.
But that's true of this current "Internet of things" wave of home automation in general: it's a work in progress, and no one really knows how it will play out. Samsung, Google and Apple all look likely to be major players, but thanks to its popularity and its compatibility with other systems, Belkin looks like it could be big player, too.
That doesn't mean WeMo is a safe bet, if you're looking for a long-term home automation system. But what is a safe bet nowadays? Even the love of my dog Sherlock isn't a sure thing. Some nights I come home and he's just sitting there. He's not lit up, and he's paying me no attention whatsoever.