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August 2013

XTension's passthrough SSL/HTTPS server

James Sentman has released a command-line app for OS X that acts as a secure pass-thru to any server on your local network. This is a handy thing if you find turning on SSL in Apache to be too daunting. (Although, you still have to mess around with generating a self-signed cert, and then telling your devices to trust it, a step that's omitted from the product's documentation.)

All in all, a very handy utility to have around. Read all about it and download it from: PlanetaryGear: SSL/HTTPS passthrough server for XTension

The downside of putting your house on the web

Forbes, in When 'Smart Homes' Get Hacked: I Haunted a Complete Stranger's House via the Internet, reports (poorly) on a flaw with early versions of the INSTEON Hub. The issue is that the first version of the product (which has since been recalled, and this flaw--among others--fixed) did not require a username or password to access it from the Internet. You have to go through some extra steps to make it accessible via the Internet, so this couldn't occur with the user's knowledge, but it seems that many ignored the documentation's warning to make sure a password had been set. The new version now requires you to turn on the security features when you enable outside access.

The Forbes article boarders on the silly in its tone and example, but this is a real problem for anyone who makes the home automation system accessible from the outside. In the past, it was possible to rely on "security through obscurity" but that is never a wise choice.

If you're rolling your own solution using something like X2Web or Astak Mole, make sure you've battened down the hatches. But if you're using third-party services such as Dropcam, WeMo, or Withings, you're at their mercy when it comes to knowing if strangers are able to access your devices. (And I think we can all agree that cameras pose the most intrusive risk.)

Philips Hue: Problem adding new bulb

I recently decided to add another lightbulb to my Hue network. When the single bulb arrived from the Apple Store, I broke out the ladder so I could put in the fixture that's high above my dining room table. Piece of cake, right? Wrong. It took me 4 days to get it working correctly.

When you install a new bulb you have to tell your Hue controller about it, so the bulb can join your home's Hue network. You do this using the Hue app for iPhone or iPad. The instructions in the box were a little vague, but I eventually found the "Add New Light" button in the app. You turn on the bulb, tap a button, and you're done. Except when it doesn't work, as it didn't for me. After a few minutes of "searching for new lights," the app gave up with "no new lights found." You can bet that I tried it several times.

The app gives you the option of adding a new light "manually." To do this, you need to enter the light's serial number. But that number is not on the box, it's on the bulb. So out comes the ladder again so I can get the serial number.

Long, frustrating story cut short-ish: Manually adding the light didn't work either. Although the light did turn red just before the app reported "no new lights found." Arrrgh.

There is no troubleshooting information for this situation on the Hue website. Google turned up nothing either. (Although I did learn, as an aside, that the bulbs you get with the Hue Starter Kit can't be used with another controller. Good to know.)

There's a toll-free number on the bulb's packaging, which I hoped would lead me to tech support. A recorded message told me that "due to the holiday" no one was available to take my call. This was on July 5th, one day after U.S. Independence Day. When I tried again later that same day, the message had been changed and now said to call back during East Coast business hours, and on a weekday.

I found a tech support request form on the Philips website. I filled it out, but it asked for things like "model number" which aren't provided on the bulb's packaging. When I submitted the form, I was taken to a page in Dutch. I think it said "thank you." I later received an email (in English) saying that I'd get a response within 24 hours. That was 2 days ago and I'm still waiting. Yes, it's a weekend in The Netherlands too, but the email didn't say anything about Monday through Friday only.

Feeling pretty frustrated that I can't use my $50 light bulb, I had an epiphany. Hue uses ZigBee, which is a mesh network. But perhaps the bulb needs to talk directly to the controller when it is being added to the network, instead of relying on relaying by peers. (I also use Z-Wave controllers, and that's true for that technology.)

So up the ladder I went (again), then I disconnected a lamp in the bedroom and brought it close to the Hue controller. I put the new bulb in the lamp, followed the steps in the app, and it worked perfectly! Finally, my new bulb was configured and usable. I was so happy I almost didn't mind having to put away the ladder and bedroom lamp. Almost.

My recommendation is that before you put any Hue lightbulb in its final location, install it in a lamp near the controller and get it added to the network. It's a simple concept, but apparently too big of a secret for Philips to share with their customers.

UPDATE: Philips tech support replied (after the weekend) with the suggestion that I download LightStealer from The Philips Hue Community. It's not an official Philips website, but has a bunch of great resources about the Hue lights. From reading there, apparently the ZigBee spec for linking is that the devices need to be within 30 centimeters of the hub. (LightStealer says that the linking feature is called "touchline" for a reason, they need to be basically touching.) These are terms and requirements that are completely undocumented by Philips. as far as I can tell.

Collected Works: O'Reilly Digital Media

A few years back I was a weekly blogger for O'Reilly. Here's a list of my contributions to their sites.

I also wrote these feature articles: