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How one tiny startup is winning the race to power your smart home

For decades the smart home has been a tantalizing dream just out of reach. There are hundreds of connected devices on the market, but competing standards mean they often can’t talk to one another or learn your routines. Consumers need a half-dozen different apps to manage it all, making the process feel more like a chore than a futuristic butler. Even in January of 2014 we felt firmly stuck with the dumb state of the smart home. In the last few months, however, a new player has emerged, an unexpected front-runner cleaning up this mess and making the smart home a mainstream reality. Wink is a small New York startup that launched in June of 2014 with a $79 box that promised to tie together devices across competing standards: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, and Z-wave. Plenty of other companies had tried the same thing, but what made Wink different was the wide array of big-name partnerships that vaulted it from unknown rookie to the company with the most shelf space in the US market.

Honeywell, Philips, Chamberlain, Schlage, GE and others are all creating Wink-compatible products, together creating a universe of 15 major manufacturers and more than 100 products that play nicely on a single platform. Meanwhile, massive merchants like Home Depot and Amazon are marketing the Wink brand. Home Depot in particular is doing the legwork of informing consumers which devices tie together and how to use Wink to control them, with in-store displays and trained sales associates pushing its ecosystem in over 2,000 locations.

"[Wink is] a potential dark horse to become the leader in this space," says Ben Arnold, an analyst with NPD Group. Research from NPD found that 48 percent of consumers were interested in owning connected devices, and that the most popular spot to look for one was a home improvement and hardware store. "With the retail partnership in place, Wink is going to have the advantage getting in front of consumers, solving the biggest challenges in the market right now: awareness and education."

Maybe you don't want to keep your phone in hand

Today Wink is announcing its second major product, Relay: a touchscreen that acts as a command and control center for all your connected devices. "Maybe you’re getting out of the shower or cooking up dinner and you don’t want a phone in hand," says Nathan Smith, Wink's co-founder and head of technology. "We felt like there was an opportunity to offer the same power and flexibility we do in the Wink mobile app, but in a central place in your home that is always on, and doesn’t require an additional device to operate."

The Relay, which retails for $300 and is available for pre-sale today on Amazon and Home Depot, is an acknowledgement that most "smart" homes are still a mix of both connected and "dumb" devices sitting side by side. Wink’s goal is ensure that no matter what connected device the consumer owns, it just works. There’s a certain irony to removing the smartphone from the smart home equation, but also a mainstream accessibility that has become Wink’s signature.

The Relay is designed to connect to standard wiring on any light switch, but will require an expert to install if you don't feel comfortable with basic electrical work. It has a touch screen where you can program your devices to work in sync and and two physical buttons that will execute preprogrammed routines like shutting the house down for the night or powering up everything in the morning. The Relay runs on Android and, like the Wink Hub, can communicate with devices using Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and radio standards like Zigbee.

Because it's connected directly to your grid, the routines you program will work even if your Wi-Fi goes down, making the Relay a nice back-up for the mobile app, especially if you have Time Warner internet like me. It's also helpful when you have children, or perhaps guests visiting, who don't necessarily have the Wink app on their device. The goal is to restore some of the analog simplicity of a tactile switch while preserving the functionality and personalization you expect from a smart home.

Battle scars

For nearly a decade Brett Worthington, now the general manager at Wink, worked at an industrial conglomerate that made everything from steam drills to home air conditioners. He was eventually tasked with helping the venerable corporation move into the new and exciting market of connected devices. It was a painful experience.

"I tried to explain, you’re gonna get disrupted."His bosses wanted to win in the smart home space, but weren’t willing to commit major resources until they saw more consumers adopting the technology. "I tried to explain, you’re gonna get disrupted. Look at Blackberry, which had 90 percent market share. Waiting for things to change before you commit, that’s how companies go bankrupt."

Eventually, Worthington had more than argument to prove that point. "I remember when the Nest came out, and it was just a slap in the face. We had been working on our own smart thermostat but never got any momentum with the project." He went to his bosses and declared, "A little startup just kicked your ass, because you are so stuck in this engineering rut that you aren’t innovating on design and interface, you’re not delighting the consumer."

As he set out to help build Wink, Worthington kept those hard lessons in mind. "You have to make a statement to wake people up and let them know this time will be different," he explains. "It takes battle scars like mine to appreciate how big you really need to go in order to make this dream succeed." Going big meant getting in front of the most customers possible, and that’s where Home Depot comes in.

Meet George Jetson

"Nobody walks in here and says, ‘Give me the smart home!’" explains Jeff Epstein, Home Depot’s vice president of merchandising. Only a few early adopters and gadget lovers arrive with visions of a Jetsons-era playpad dancing in their heads. "Most people are looking to replace a broken water heater or garage door," he says. "We’re showing them different options and explaining that, for a few dollars more, they can get the additional benefits of a connected device."

"Nobody walks in here and says, ‘give me the smart home!’"
wink relay 2

Home Depot already had something like 600 connected devices on its shelves when Wink debuted, Epstein says, "but none of them were talking to one another." The items were arranged by product category, mixed in with dozens of other choices, with no clear way to indicate which ones had smart features. "With Wink, we’ve got a story that we’re telling across the store now. You can look for the label, you see the end cap displays, and our associates are trained to explain how everything works with the app, the hub, and each other." Having a platform story to tell has helped to boost sales of connected devices across the company’s massive retail footprint. "We’ve been very pleased with the results."

Customers may not come into the store dreaming of a fully tricked-out smart home, but once people buy a first connected device, they are likely to buy more. Wink found that consumers who purchased its hub typically doubled the number of connected devices in their home in the 30 days that followed. Its biggest competitor, SmartThings, released a similar statistic, noting that the average customer has gone from five to ten connected devices over the last six months, with users opening the app four times a day and receiving fifteen notifications per day.

The tech titans arrive

We’re at a tipping point for smart home adoption. One in five Americans now own a home appliance that’s connected to the internet, and in a recent study a two-thirds majority said they would purchase a connected device if it helped them save on their utility bills or increase home security. The question is, who is going to power your ecosystem?

In January of this year, Google purchased Nest for $3.2 billion. May brought the announcement that Microsoft was partnering with SmartLabs’ Insteon to sell connected-home kits that work well with its desktop and mobile offerings. In June Apple introduced the world to HomeKit, aiming to make your iPhone and Apple Watch the universal remote for your smarthome. And with Samsung’s purchase of SmartThings in August the lineup was complete: each of the biggest forces in mobile wants to be the owner of your smart home experience.

Who is going to power your smart home ecosystem?

That puts Wink in a unique, perhaps advantageous position. It doesn’t sell its own connected devices, so big retailers like Amazon and Home Depot can push its platform without alienating other manufacturers. And Wink can work directly with companies like Phillips, Bosch, and Honeywell during the development phase of a new lightbulb, washing machine, or thermostat, because it has no plans to make competing products. Quirky, Wink’s parent company, does do crowdsourced innovation, but the two companies have established a legal firewall preventing the sharing of information. Wink’s product partners seem satisfied with that.

According to sources familiar with the negotiations, Wink is preparing to announce another partnership with a massive American retailer, along the lines of a Target or Lowe's, that would put its brand in front of even more consumers. "We’re not worried about all the big new players, it’s exciting, it’s a good sign for the space," says Nathan Smith, Wink’s co-founder. " We don’t see ourselves as direct competitors with those companies. People keep asking, who’s going to win the war for the smart home? But that’s the wrong question. It’s way too big to be controlled by a single company. It’s like saying in 1999, ‘Who’s going to win the Internet?"

Smith says Wink is focused on becoming the brand the most consumers know and trust, the one that works with every device, no matter who built it or what technology it uses to communicate. The Relay is part of that. "Part of the goal was to put a lot of runway in here. We want it to work with any smart device you bring into your home, even ones that haven’t been created yet."

Photography by Sean O'Kane.