Eero kicked off an arms race of router innovation when it launched the first mesh Wi-Fi system last year. It seems like everyone is making mesh Wi-Fi systems now: Google has one. Samsung has one. There are new mesh startups like Plume and Lumo. Established players like Netgear and Linksys are in the game, one-upping each other with specs and features because one-upping each other with specs and features is their fundamental purpose on this planet.
But Eero is still the standout — a modern hardware startup that arrived with such a fundamentally good idea about how to reinvent an unloved product that it kicked off a wave of change. Eero is out today with updated products that introduce a new wireless standard for smart homes and a new $10-per-month Eero Plus service that adds network security monitoring and improved parental controls. The new base Eero system is now a $299 two-device bundle of a second-gen Eero base station and a new smaller Eero Beacon. Systems range up to a $499 Eero Pro package of three base stations. Combined, it all forms the beginnings of what Eero calls an “operating system for the home.”
Eero is the rare hardware startup that actually reinvented an unloved product
But hold up: one of the biggest stories in tech is that very few promising startups get big before being swallowed by what Walt Mossberg has called “the oligarchy”: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook. Other standout companies with similar ambitions to rethink the home have all been gobbled and hobbled over the past few years: Nest and Dropcam were acquired by Google, while Samsung snagged SmartThings. And Eero’s all-white design, set-it-and-forget-it simplicity, and consumer-friendly marketing have certainly led a few people to suggest that Apple should eventually snap it up.
All of this adds up to a very hard question: can Eero succeed in creating a new kind of ecosystem while facing down waves of competition and the inevitable pull to sell out?
Eero announced itself in 2015 after CEO Nick Weaver spent time working at Menlo Ventures investing in companies like Dropcam and Roku. Both companies struggled with bad connectivity in the home. “It drove a lot of their customer complaints,” says Weaver. “So we kept looking for an investment [in Wi-Fi], and couldn’t find it.”
Weaver left Menlo and started Eero with two co-founders in late 2014. The first office was his living room. Hardware and software development took two years, marked by lengthy delays for preorder customers and investments by First Round, Menlo, and Andy Rubin’s Playground Global, among others. The first Eero units shipped in early 2016, and received enthusiastic reviews.
Weaver makes it a point to highlight the technical breakthroughs behind Eero.
“We’re making the radios do things they aren’t designed to do,” says Weaver. The first-gen Eeros have a pair of Qualcomm Wi-Fi radios used by several other companies, but Eero built custom drivers for them. “Most of these radios are designed to make one connection. When an Eero comes up it’s forming links between as many other Eeros as possible.”
“When you reserve one radio for just mesh that means you aren’t writing great software.”
Other mesh Wi-Fi systems like Netgear’s Orbi system have a third radio that’s dedicated to a backhaul connection between base stations, and in reviews and tests they’ve been consistently faster than the first-gen Eero. The new second-gen Eeros have three radios, but the smaller Beacon extenders are still dual-band, and Weaver insists that being able to move client and backhaul traffic around each radio at will is ultimately a more powerful approach.
“When you reserve one radio for just mesh that means you aren’t writing great software,” he says. “We’re the only product on the market that can scale out to any number of devices.” Cheekily, when the company released a major software update with new radio driver code, it renamed its system TrueMesh to highlight the difference.
Every Eero network connects up to Eero’s cloud service, which constantly gathers data about how the systems are performing and what devices are on the network in order to optimize performance. “Every time Apple or Xbox or Sonos pushes a software update it slightly changes how the devices work and interact with the network,” says Weaver. “We're constantly looking at how quickly devices get IP addresses, how well they roam, all these things that change. And we use software updates as a way of improving device performance — we've done a bunch of stuff to make sure, say, Sonos works properly with Eero. Basically, we're running the world's largest interoperability study.”
“Smart thermostats and speakers are crashing and restarting more frequently than you think.”
Being responsible for every connection in customers’ homes was initially much more pressure than the company realized, Weaver says. “Devices like smart thermostats and speakers are crashing and restarting more frequently than you think. Most of time you don’t notice, because you’re not using them. But when you’re supposed to be rock-solid infrastructure, that’s a huge amount of responsibility. We ended up revamping a lot of the core algorithms and core tech for how Eeros communicate with each other.”
Eero says it’s pushed more than 30 software updates since the product launched last year. That’s a furious rate of change for any hardware product, let alone a Wi-Fi router, which most people never update even once.
Weaver tells me Eero has no plans to look at network data beyond performance. “We don’t collect data about where you go on the internet — that’s not interesting,” he says. “We sell a premium product, and soon a service. We’re not running ads, and we’re not doing any commerce. The data is just so we can rapidly improve the software.”
Weaver says the $10 / month or $100 / year Eero Plus service will get features added to it over time, comparing it to Amazon Prime. It’ll roll out with more robust parental controls and network security that blocks malicious websites and protects against botnets. “We’ve fingerprinted 5 to 10 million devices at this point,” says Weaver. “We're getting really good at understanding which devices are behaving normally and which ones are behaving abnormally.” Misbehaving devices will get flagged, and users will get regular security reports.
All of that is nice, but the competing Luma mesh Wi-Fi system offers both parental controls and network monitoring for free. The Google Wifi mesh system has cheaper per-base hardware costs, and it’s not like Google can’t find reasons to start aggressively collecting network data to build services around it.
Ultimately Eero’s going to need to pump up the value equation of Eero Plus by adding more features to justify the monthly service fee. And that could go a lot of ways, from additional privacy services like built-in VPNs and anonymous browsing to bigger ideas like opening up space for third-party apps to run on Eero networks, which Weaver says “would be pretty interesting.”
The new Eeros also support the Thread wireless standard, which may or may not be a huge deal in the future. Thread is a long, long story. It’s a low-power wireless standard designed for smart home devices like locks and light switches that claims to fix the complexity of Bluetooth and weirdness of older standards like Z-Wave. It was originally developed by Nest, and somewhat lost inside the drama that unfolded with Nest’s acquisition by Google and subsequent acquisition of Dropcam. Google shipped a Thread-compatible chip in the Google OnHub router, but it was never enabled, and there’s no Thread hardware in the newer Google Wifi mesh networking system. And there aren’t any fully Thread-compatible smart home devices out there that I’m aware of.
But Thread is also a mesh networking system, and having Eero also connect to lower-power devices like sensors and light switches means that you don’t need unsightly and complicated hubs between your smart home gadgets and your network. “There’s a really healthy pipeline of [Thread] devices that have been ready for a long time,” says Weaver. “Everyone has been waiting for a Thread border router so they don’t have to do a $50 loss leader hub with every product they ship.”
Eero says it’s done what Google and Nest have both failed to do
“Others have made this promise and it never came to fruition,” he adds. “Thread runs in the 2.4GHz spectrum like Wi-Fi, and there’s a lot of coexistence work you have to do to make sure you can maintain a 2.4GHz connection to a Wi-Fi device while maintaining connectivity to a Thread device.” Client devices like phones can manage having both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi in the 2.4GHz spectrum by rapidly turning those radios on and off in millisecond bursts, but that’s not a workable solution for a router, which has to handle multiple Wi-Fi connections at once.
Basically, Weaver says Eero has been able to figure out how to do something no one else has ever figured out how to do with Thread. Not Nest, which invented Thread but failed to ship a rumored Thread hub codenamed Flintstone for years, and not Google, which stuck a Thread chip in its OnHub Wi-Fi router but never enabled it. The newer Google Wifi mesh system doesn’t have Thread support at all.
“The reason [the OnHub chips] haven’t been turned on is coexistence,” says Weaver. “That’s not something you can just do in software. You have to do it in hardware.”
Existing Eero customers can add Thread support to their networks by adding or swapping in a second-gen Eero or Beacon unit. And Weaver says a wave of marketing will come when there are a few Thread devices on the market. If it all works, you’ll be able to add smart home components to your network as easily as any other Wi-Fi device — and Eero will have the simplest solution for making sure all those connections are stable and optimized.
There’s also a huge marketing push coming alongside the new Eero products, with big displays in Best Buy, a major ad campaign, and retail availability in Walmart and Target. But while Eero certainly has the mindshare and attention of the industry, it still has a long way to go in terms of sales. The company won’t give me exact sales numbers, but Weaver says he’ll call me when there are a million homes with Eero systems in them.
So: a hot VC-backed hardware startup solving thorny technical problems with a cool product customers love that’s just about to take the next step in terms of sales and marketing. I keep asking: can Eero go it alone, or will it inevitably sell out to the giants like so many other companies?
“No,” says Weaver. “We’re trying to build a real standalone company here.”
“There is not one single home that has all Apple devices or all Google devices or all Amazon devices,” he adds. “We have an opportunity to be an unbiased piece of infrastructure that runs every part of connectivity in every part of the home that's not tied to one specific ecosystem. That's a huge opportunity.”
“We’re trying to build a real standalone company here.”
I bring up Nest, which sold to Google for $3.2 billion but then stagnated before releasing a new camera last month. Would that kind of offer do it? “That was probably one of the most spectacular technology M&A outcomes we've ever seen,” says Weaver. “You get to a situation like that and you've got a responsibility to your board and your shareholders to evaluate offers.” He brings up Instagram, which continues to be innovative and beloved by consumers after being acquired by Facebook.
But a couple days later, when I ask yet again, Weaver makes it clear that his preferred outcome is to stay independent. And as Eero grows, its ranks swell with employees leaving the giants — including several who previously worked on the once-revolutionary AirPort Wi-Fi product line at Apple.
“When you’re a company at our stage, you’ve got one or two products you’re working on, and the ones that you’re working on, you ship,” says Weaver. “When you get to these bigger companies, there’s tons of products you’re working on, and very few of them ship.”
So can Eero actually build the ecosystem on top of your home network it’s dreaming of, while fending off fierce competition and the inevitable promise of a check from the giants? We’ll see. But there’s something great about a smaller company totally focused on its own concise product line without the politics and platform lock-in games of the giants.
“Every single device that matters in the home is going to be connected to the internet and every piece of content we consume in the home is going to be delivered over the internet,” says Weaver. “The opportunity here is to build a lasting brand at home.”