Google’s thirst for connected-home products means that entrepreneurs in the growing sector have another deep-pocketed competitor to outfox. But they’ve also got a new sales pitch: We’re not Google.
“We certainly have not been shy,” says Jason Hanna, CEO of home heating-automation startup Embue. “It’s definitely something that we talk about.”
Questions about the advertising and software giant’s intentions in the home have become a hot topic in the six short months since Google decided to spend $3.2 billion for Nest, a company that makes Internet-connected, customizable thermostats and smoke detectors.
On Friday, Nest said it would add another well-regarded home automation startup to Google’s portfolio by spending $555 million to acquire Dropcam, which sells an online home-security camera service.
The fact that it spent so much money so quickly shows how seriously Google is taking the race to connect home devices to the Internet. The developing sector promises to open up a new platform for software, services, and personal information. That could drive more digital advertising, which makes up almost all of Google’s revenue.
That has led consumers to worry that Google is planning to monitor or record their in-home comings and goings in an effort to collect more cash from advertisers.
Dropcam CEO and co-founder Greg Duffy is decidedly not a fan of the data-collection approach. Last year, he told us that a key part of Dropcam’s prized company culture was its business model of making money by selling things, rather than giving them away in an attempt to collect information that could be traded on later.
“I think if your business model is not straightforward, it veers into potentially being unethical, if you look at things that are ‘free,’” Duffy said. “None of the people who work here want to work on something that works like that. They look at it as tricking the user, when [a company is] turning around and using some part of the user’s data to make revenue.”
“Data won’t be shared with anyone (including Google) without a customer’s permission,” Nest co-founder Matt Rogers wrote in a blog post. “Nest has a paid-for business model and ads are not part of our strategy. In acquiring Dropcam, we’ll apply that same policy to Dropcam too.”
Of course, some users might not mind. People who want mobile assistant app Google Now to automatically set their home temperature can now allow the app to control the Nest thermostat, under a new partnership announced Monday. It’s part of a broader partnership initiative in which Nest plans to “share limited user information with Google and other partners,” as The Wall Street Journal reported.
That leaves an intriguing opening for smaller, independent competitors to talk up how their products or services differ. Hanna, of Boston-based Embue, says he’s not necessarily interested in making Nest or Google out to be a bogeyman. But it’s definitely a question that gets asked.
“I don’t really think they have malicious intentions for what’s going to happen with this data. But certainly, yes, I think it’s a good opportunity to talk about how we’re different, about our approach to privacy, and how we’ve designed our system to be a little bit different,” Hanna says. “Until Google bought Nest, I only saw a fraction of the questions and concern about what was being done with that data.”
Home-tech entrepreneurs also point out that privacy worries are usually among the first problems raised when new technologies are established, and tend to get sorted out over time. If you’re afraid that Google or some other big company is watching your thermostat, just consider what your social media or shopping history says about you.
“It’s kind of like the old days, when everybody was worried about putting their credit card out on the Internet. Nobody worries about that stuff anymore,” says Jeremy Jaech, CEO of SNUPI Technologies. “I think adequate safeguards will be put in place, and if people break trust, they get slapped. You look at the sort of stuff that Facebook has had to deal with. It’s sort of self-correcting.”
There are plenty of other big-company competitors around who aren’t backed by advertising giants, too—many well-known home networking and appliance brands like Belkin and Honeywell are working on next-generation thermostats, climate systems, security cameras, and the like.
But for you early adopters who are interested in checking out smaller, independent companies trying to make some headway, here’s a look at some interesting startups that we’ve found:
Rather than putting the whole home-heating shebang into a thermostat, which is the Nest approach, Embue is developing a network of connected devices that help maintain and monitor home temperature and energy use.
An “Embue Core” computer collects data from a set of wireless sensors that can be placed around a home and uses the data to control the heating and air conditioning system. The system can be monitored and adjusted through online software accessible on a smartphone.
Embue, which is trying to raise money for its system on Kickstarter, also plans to offer a professional monitoring service that can allow a heating-system technician to see a smaller set of high-level data about the setup’s performance in order to spot any problems or upgrade opportunities.
Embue plans to sell its hardware and software through local heating and air conditioning services, rather than putting the devices on store shelves, in hopes that small businesses will adopt it as an alternative to off-the-shelf products that heating-system contractors don’t carry.
Birdi is developing an Internet-connected smoke, pollution, and dangerous gas detector that it hopes will be a big improvement over the old nine-volt-battery arrangement that most people still have screwed into their ceilings. The idea … Next Page »
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