Paul Hibbert vs Home Assistant

Paul Hibbert recently released a Youtube video entitled “I tried Home Assistant AGAIN and it’s STILL NOT WORTH IT”… so who is he and is he right?

Paul Hibbert is a Youtuber who creates videos about smart home tech, describing himself as being “on a mission to automate the world.”

He has a particular style that is pretty over the top, and you’ll either love it or hate it. Best in small doses sums him up for me, but in between the jokes and hyperbole he does seem to have a genuine interest in home automation.

As should be  clear from this blog, I’m a big fan of Home Assistant and my initial reaction was to dismiss the video out of hand but it’s always worth looking at constructive criticism. Arguably, Paul’s criticisms don’t come across as constructive, but I think that’s largely down to his presentation style and he does make some valid points. That is, once you get past him calling Home Assistant fans “over aggressive nerds who want to feel superior about themselves”

Home Assistant may have started out as a niche techie project for geeks, but the team behind it have ambitions for it to be a consumer friendly platform for everyone. As such, it’s worth understanding why an enthusiast with a lot of interest in home automation would dismiss it. Is there anything in his video that the Home Assistant team could learn from?

He talks about his problems with some particular integrations, including Broadlink. I’m not familiar with it, so I can’t speak to the exact issues, but it does highlight the point that not all integrations are equally polished. That’s inevitable for an open source project.  The integrations depend entirely on which products and services that the developers use.

The developers deserve praise for the work that they do on making integrations user friendly – I’m sure most would be just as happy using config files – but inevitably the most widely used integrations will get the most polish. It’s not always clear whether an integration will “just work” or will involve diving into configuration files.

I’d suggest a rating for integrations, something along the lines of:

  • Gold – first class integration. Fully configurable via the UI. If authentication to a third party service is required it will be done through the UI.
  • Silver – configurable through the UI, but requires additional external effort such as signing up for an API key with a service.
  • Bronze – requires YAML configuration or other expert knowledge. The Broadlink integration would probably fit into this category.

Another valid point is that getting help isn’t always easy. Many tutorials and forum posts refer to older versions of Home Assistant. In most cases, the changes have made things easier for new users – instead of dealing with YAML it’s now possible to configure many integrations and automations through the user interface. There have, though, been changes that render previous advice out of date and incorrect.

It’s true of some of my older posts. I’ve been contacted by readers who point to mistakes in my posts, and when I’ve checked it has turned out the my post was correct at the time of writing. I update my posts when that happens, but when there’s a breaking change I don’t always remember to go back over older posts to see if I’ve written anything that needs fixing.

I think there’s also room for improvement in the official documentation. I like to think that I’m reasonably technical, but there have been times that I’ve had to resort to trial and error and reading forum posts to figure things out. It’s improving, but it can be a bit terse and I think it would benefit from greater use of step by step examples and screenshots, especially for beginners.

Documentation is a skill in its own right, and perhaps best written by experienced users rather than developers. If you’re an expert and know a subject inside out, it can feel like you’re stating the obvious and that some things don’t need to be spelt out, when that’s exactly what a newbie needs.

It would be fair, at this point, for the HA developers to say “well, if you have ideas for improving the documentation, why don’t you contribute?”

I’d love to, I really would, if I had more time. Writing these blog posts is part of the hobby for me, but good quality documentation takes longer. I think I could do it but unfortunately I have that little obstacle known as a day job…

Paul also makes a good point about some of the responses he gets discussing the issues he’s had with Home Assistant. There’s a tendency on the internet for some experts to forget that not everyone has as much experience and that some things are only “obvious” when you already know them. Some of them will be offensive about it. That’s just the internet for you, though, and in my experience is thankfully quite rare in the Home Assistant community.

It’s only a small minority that are like that and most Home Assistant enthusiasts are happy to share their knowledge. Sharing knowledge isn’t always easy though. It’s the same problem as with documentation – knowing your audience and understanding what needs to be explained.

So to be fair to Paul, some of his criticisms are justified. He does also praise Home Assistant, and when he says it’s not worth it I think he just means that it’s not worth it for him. That’s reasonable, given that the entire video was in response to various comments he’d received promoting Home Assistant and telling him to try it.

Home Assistant is always going to be a niche product. Home automation in general is quite a niche interest, and only a subset of home automation users will want to go further than the basics and want the power of Home Assistant. For those that do, it’s an incredible piece of software.

My final response to Paul would be to keep an eye on Home Assistant. It’s getting easier to use with every release, but ultimately you need a use case for it. If you value control over your data and want to reduce your reliance on cloud based services, there’s nothing better. If you’re happy with what you can do with your existing setup, that’s great, stick with it.

The Broadlink device looks interesting though… could be tempted to pick one up for myself…

in Home Automation

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