In December 2017, Amazon spent $90 million to acquire Blink, a Kickstarter-funded startup that developed a super energy-efficient chip to power its battery-operated smart home security cameras. In January 2018, Blink announced its first video doorbell. The next month, Amazon dropped a cool billion on Ring, a smart home security camera company known for essentially inventing the video doorbell. The writing was on the wall for Blink. It seemed apparent to industry analysts that it had been snapped up for its innovative tech, which surely would be pumped into the bigger, badder Ring.
Fast forward three years, and Ring’s founder, Jamie Siminoff, walks out onstage at Amazon’s latest hardware bonanza event and announces Blink’s first-ever video doorbell. Ring has seven video doorbell cameras of its own you can buy.
Huh? Hang on. Why does Blink still even exist?
That’s a question I’ve pondered over the last few years, as each company released new products that replicate what the other has. Ring has close to a dozen versions of indoor and outdoor security cameras (in addition to doorbells). Blink had one, now it has four, plus a doorbell. And, as of this week, both have floodlight and solar-powered camera options. These products are all designed to do the same thing: let you view live or recorded footage of action in and around your home. They both use different apps and subscription plans and neither works with the other.
When Blink released its first wired camera, the Blink Mini — a clone of the Amazon Cloud Cam (which Amazon discontinued the month after the Mini launched) — it all began to feel frustratingly redundant. Why take a company founded on innovative battery technology and have them make a product that is the polar opposite and that Amazon already made?
The answer seems to be market segmentation; dividing your target audience into approachable groups in order to sell more things. And it’s something Amazon seems to be embracing wholeheartedly as it continues its pursuit to be all things to all people. As technologist Dave Zatz pointed out on Twitter last year, “Why do Whole Foods, and Amazon Pantry and Amazon Fresh all exist at the same time? … Ring could be the premium line and Blink standard.”
“We’re trying to give options to our customers that meet their needs,” Mike Harris, the COO of both Blink and Ring (as of February 2020), told me this week. “There’s such a wide variety of people out there, and they have different wants and needs.” They also have different perceptions. The skeptic in me does wonder if all the bad publicity Ring received in the last couple of years around its police partnerships and privacy issues perhaps gave Blink a lifeline. Why end this smart home brand when that smart home brand is slightly tarnished?
Let’s pause for a moment to compare cameras to diapers
But market segmentation is a solid business strategy, especially in a highly competitive market like smart security cameras. Let’s pause for a moment to compare cameras to diapers. There are dozens of diaper brands. When you have your first baby, you buy Pampers because they’re expensive and therefore must be the best. When you’re on child number three, it’s Luvs all the way. They’re around half the price and they still hold the poop.
Do you stop to consider that both brands are owned by Procter & Gamble? Do you care? Most people probably have no idea that Blink is actually a part of Ring (Harris explained that while Blink is an independent company, it is now inside Jamie Siminoff’s organization). They just choose the camera brand that works for them — or, perhaps more accurately, the one that’s been marketed to them.
To be fair, Ring and Blink do offer different solutions to the same problem and can suit different customers in different ways. Blink is very low cost and seems to be getting cheaper (a $49.99 doorbell is really cheap). It’s also a very basic — and therefore simple — security camera system. It has fewer features than Ring’s cameras (no person detection, for example) and poorer video quality (no HDR imaging and really bad night vision), but its app is easier to use than Ring’s.
The biggest difference is battery life. You can stick four of Blink’s compact, easy-to-mount, battery-powered cameras around your home with just a drill and a Wi-Fi connection in under 30 minutes, and you won’t have to worry about charging or replacing the batteries for one to two years. That’s about six times less often than you’ll be charging one of Ring’s Stick Up Cams.
Blink’s core technology revolves around a proprietary chip that can keep a camera running on two lithium AA batteries for up to two years — something no other security camera has managed to replicate. Yes, competitors’ cameras — including Ring’s — have better video quality, but that doesn’t do you any good if you don’t remember to take it down and charge it every four to six weeks. (Seriously, who has time for that? It’s my job, and I don’t have time for that.)
Blink also offers free, local storage — which puts it squarely in competition with another popular budget smart home camera company, Wyze. While Ring has introduced a local storage option with its new Ring Alarm Pro, it’s an expensive upgrade, and you still need to pay a monthly subscription fee to Ring.
Ring and Blink are basically siblings, and Amazon’s approach appears to be to let them fight it out and see what transpires. “The sibling description is a good one,” says Harris. “We do collaborate, we also push each other. Innovation comes from everywhere and this allows unique ideas to come out and serve the different customer bases that each brand speaks to.”
But this begs the question, why not pool those resources? Why not use their combined talents — the innovation and market reach of Ring and the impressive chip technology of Blink — to make the best cameras they can?
Rather than produce the best of the best here, it appears Amazon has opted for conglomeration over consolidation. While that’s not always a bad thing — more choice equals more competition, lower prices, and more innovation — in the smart home in particular it’s frustrating for users. No cross-pollination between these sibling brands means you can’t use a Blink camera up in a tree to check on that wily squirrel and a Ring video doorbell to keep an eye on porch pirates, without having to use two different apps and pay two different subscription fees. Amazon makes you pick your favorite, something no parent should ever do.