The Smart Home Has Arrived in the Wink of an Eye
With the massive growth of consumer voice interface devices, 2017 is being billed as the year of the smart home.
Mainstream consumers can now track and manage nearly everything in their homes with a single app, or use a single command to ask Google Home or Amazon Alexa to turn off the TV, dim the lights and make sure the front door is locked before going to bed.
Flex spoke with Nathan Smith, an enthusiastic Oakland A’s fan, smart home pioneer, and the founder and chief technology officer of Wink, the smart home platform that brings hundreds of different products together in one app.
Wink recently launched its second-generation smart home hub with support for products from nearly 40 smart home companies. In addition, the company announced support for Google Home, and was the first smart home platform to work with Amazon Alexa.
We discussed the success of Wink’s latest product launch and how this sleek and powerful device can address consumers’ security needs, while also making the smart home experience simple and reliable.
Flex: First off, congratulations on the PC Mag Editors’ Choice Award!
Nathan: Thank you! It’s an amazing honor.
Flex: How is the Wink Hub 2 doing?
Nathan: Although it’s still early, we saw strong sales during the holiday season. Sales were brisk on Amazon and at Home Depot on the brick and mortar side. And we’re optimistic that our partnership with Walmart will be good for sales, too.
Flex: Can you say more about the partnership with Walmart? Was it a tough deal to negotiate? Were they eager to embrace the smart hub?
Nathan: They were very open to the partnership and the hub. As you might imagine, Walmart is a pragmatic organization. They waited for the right time, for when customers would be interested in this type of product. That time is now. Consumers are very intrigued by the benefits of the smart hub, things like mobility, voice command, and home security monitoring.
Flex: Let’s talk feeds-and-speeds for a second. How does the extra RAM in the hub improve performance?
Nathan: It helps speed things up, and allows us to do more on the hub, so we can maximize what we’re sending to the cloud. As smart homes get more complex with more devices, having a powerful hub is important.
Flex: How does the addition of Bluetooth Low Energy help customers??
Nathan: One of the nice things about Bluetooth LE is that it simplifies the setup process for consumers, and it also allows us to connect to a much wider range of devices. Most smartphones today support BLE, and you’re starting to see companies like Target make Bluetooth-enabled smart lights. In non-technical language, adding Bluetooth LE makes it much easier to support a wide range of current and new smart devices, and makes it much easier to get a smart home up and running.
"Consumers don’t say to themselves, 'I want to connect my home.' Instead they have basic interests like keeping burglars away and monitoring their home while on vacation."Flex: What are some of the major benefits of a hub in the smart home?
Nathan: One key benefit is the fact that a hub works with the most common protocols – from Bluetooth to Z-Wave – which different smart home products are powered by. This allows consumers to buy the products they like from the brands they trust without having to consider if this thermostat will work with that light bulb – a hub enables everything to work together fluidly. Another advantage is the ability to adjust things at home while you’re on the road – a hub will make it easier to securely access your home network from the internet. A final advantage is that a smart home hub acts as a security layer to protect your data by making it harder for hackers to access your network.
Flex: Speaking of security, has the Mirai botnet affected your smart hub customers at all?
Nathan: No, none of our customers have been compromised by Mirai. We use a very different architecture than the devices that were hacked. When you’re using Wink, your smart phone isn’t directly accessing your home network, so there’s no need to open a firewall port to the outside world.
Flex: Is the smart hub the new firewall?
Nathan: No, the hub is a product that doesn’t ask you to compromise your firewall to gain full remote access to it. It’s architected from the ground up to protect users from security compromises. Customers don't need to open a single port to use our product. It operates entirely behind the firewall.
Flex: Alexa is going gangbusters in the market. What are your thoughts?
Nathan: Alexa is a great way to design an interface for connected products. It’s great for command and control use cases. We love to find relevant ways to interact with products at Wink—and Alexa is a fine example of great product design and a first-class integration.
Flex: You mentioned that you focus on simplifying the smart home experience for consumers. At the same time, Wink supports one of the widest ranges of smart home technologies. How do you make this easy for consumers while also bringing WiFi, Bluetooth, ZigBee and all these other advanced technologies together in one device?
Nathan: That’s a big question—in fact, it’s the question, the big challenge in designing smart, connected devices. We think deeply about use cases and spend a lot of time mapping user journeys. What we find is that consumers don’t say to themselves, “I want to connect my home.” Instead they have basic interests like keeping burglars away and monitoring their home while on vacation. We reverse engineer from those interests and use cases. Then we conduct user-experience research to inform the design and development of the system.
In my experience, people that create technology products that are truly useful to consumers are the people that consider the experience holistically. It’s not just about hardware or software. And it’s not just about what the customer wants. It’s about all those things working together in one experience.