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Remote Automation Spotlight
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Former CEDIA CEO Launches Ad-Supported Home Automation Platform

Utz Baldwin launches Ube cloud-enabled home automation system built around ‘the Internet of things.’ Chases 4 million subscribers to build critical mass for targeted advertising.


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Ube WiFi-enabled light switch and home automation app

What if you built a free or cheap home automation solution that brought in so many subscribers that you could monetize your customer base by selling advertising via the platform?

That’s the business model of Ube, a start-up spearheaded by Utz Baldwin, a former home systems integrator and the past CEO of the Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association (CEDIA).

In an interview with CE Pro, Baldwin calls the technology disruptive, but it’s really the business model that is disruptive: Build a critical mass of subscribers to a cloud-based home automation service and then make money by selling a rich database that includes every household member’s choice of TV stations, temperature settings, comings and goings, etc.

The goal is to attract 4 million subscribers in the first four or five years by giving away the home automation software and selling richer SaaS-based capabilities for a nominal $20 per year.

To ramp up this quickly, installation must be simple for the do-it-yourselfer, which means no central control system for the Ube solution – the likes of which are found in traditional home controllers that employ low-cost, low-rate wireless technologies such as ZigBee and Z-Wave.

Instead, Ube is going all-IP for machine-to-machine (M2M) home control via iOS, Android and other smart devices -- an approach employed by few home automation vendors today, with the notable exception of Belkin and its very limited WeMo.

Unfortunately, you just can’t find light switches and AC outlets today with built-in WiFi, so Ube is building its own that are easily configured. Each has a 32-bit processor that is "as powerful as most central home controllers," Baldwin says.

“We have a simple method for provisioning the devices,” Baldwin says. “It’s as easy as sending a text message. You just have to answer two questions – what room is it in, and what do you want to call it?”

M2M-based home control that exploit “the Internet of things” have been limited in the past due mostly to the relatively high cost of IP-based technologies compared to lower-cost (and lower-power) home automation-centric technologies like Z-Wave and ZigBee.

Ube’s WiFi-enabled switches, though, will cost about as much as the lowest-price versions of their Z-enabled counterparts, or around $60. The company's first hardware products are geared towards lighting and energy management, with an AC outlet, dimmer and plug-in module.

“Most smart home dimmers today cost $140 to $200 and still require some other device,” Baldwin says. “Ours requires no additional hardware.”

Of course, that means the Ube system can only control devices out of the gate that are IP-enabled, like smart TVs and thermostats. Baldwin says protocol bridges are likely to be launched in the future.

Ube says it will be able to control around 200 different IP-enabled devices on the market when it launches this year.

Big Brother Meets Home Automation


Ube doesn’t expect to make much on the hardware, and at $20 per year for a subscription, that income will be relatively modest as well.

The money comes in the “aggregation of big data,” Baldwin explains. The system will know that the user “has x brand of receiver, what’s connected to it and when/how you interact with it.”

Targeted advertising then can be pushed to the user. Of course, since each user has their own smart device, the data can drill down to each unique user in a household via “‘submetering’ and intelligence on the back end,” Baldwin explains.

The system "can see any IP-enabled device and how you interact with it," he says. "Every button press from every user is captured."

In addition to having value for advertisers, the data also is useful for the users themselves, Baldwin says: "Over time, it can suggest actions based on their patterns. The system learns how you use it over time."

In an era of paranoia about identity theft and security breaches, Baldwin acknowledges that this approach to home automation might freak out a user or two, but it really isn’t much different from the targeted ads on Facebook and elsewhere, he suggests.

The system might know, for example, that it’s time to change a filter or clean a drip pan and deliver ads for related subcontractors.

When it comes to data aggregation, it “comes down to eyeballs,” Baldwin says. “We believe we can reach somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 million downloads in around four or five years.”

That requires a heck of a lot of do-it-yourselfers who are comfortable installing light switches and thermostats.

Baldwin says Ube closed its initial seed funding and plans to raise more via Kickstarter – less for the money than for the visibility and valuable feedback, Baldwin says.

The company launches today at DEMO Fall 2012.

The press release follows on page 2.

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The UI has some interesting touches. Use one finger on the touchscreen to control an individual light; two fingers to communicate with all dimmers in a room. Pinch to turn off all dimmers in the home.





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Article Topics

News · Product News · Home Automation and Control · Control Systems · Lighting · Energy Management · Ube · Utz Baldwin · All topics

About the Author

Julie Jacobson, Co-Founder, EH Publishing / Editor-at-large, CE Pro
Julie Jacobson, recipient of the 2014 CEA TechHome Leadership Award, is co-founder of EH Publishing, producer of CE Pro, Electronic House, Commercial Integrator, Security Sales and other leading technology publications. She currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. She's a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player currently residing in Carlsbad, Calif. Follow her on Twitter @juliejacobson. [More by Julie Jacobson]

7 Comments (displayed in order by date/time)

Posted by TedG  on  10/02  at  09:07 AM

Hey Julie,

For the benefit of your readers: During my interview of Baldwin, I also asked about the selling of their data and privacy issues.

Baldwin told me that they would only sell aggregated data stripped of any personally-identifiable information.

So we can tamp down the paranoia…a bit.

Ted Green

Posted by Julie Jacobson  on  10/02  at  11:00 AM

Correct ... not unlike Facebook and other contextual ad services.

I’ve heard advertising mentioned by the other SaaS-based home automation vendors but to my knowledge no one is really implementing it yet.

Posted by Jamie  on  10/02  at  01:00 PM

Ambitious - and yes, a little big-brother-y.

Curious to see how it works with all of the X-factors involved: do-it-yourself installers, spotty wi-fi, lack of broadband…  It could present a tech-support nightmare for factors that cannot be controlled.

Time will tell… 

Gotta give it to you, Utz - you have a slew of people who would buy it just because you are involved in it.  Good luck!

Posted by Dan  on  10/03  at  10:13 AM

Their concept sounds like a nightmarish mash-up of technologies. WiFi uses crowded spectrum, isn’t too reliable and has some serious security issues. Cloud and SaaS are just the latest buzz-words and don’t or shouldn’t be used in ALL the latest and greatest tech. Sure their idea is revolutionary but I think this is all sizzle that in the blink of an eye will turn to fizzle.

When twitter or facebook are down, for some it seems like time stops or its the end of the world. Now imagine if your light switches and home components aren’t working because the cloud is acting up, you forgot to pay your ISP bill or you are having bandwidth issues.

I run a very complicated home automation/security setup in my house using a myriad of technologies and I’d love to see something more simple come to the forefront but I don’t feel like this is it. I’ve spent thousands on tech and hundreds of hours in time building my system but I’d be extremely hesitant to try this. This sounds more disastrous than a house packed with x-10 components.

Posted by paulcunningham  on  10/04  at  06:14 AM

@Dan - this seems like an automation system for the homeowner who currently does not have one. Light switches will still work if internet goes down, you just won’t be able to control them from your iPad app. Same with your TV, surround receiver or any other device. It’s not so different than Crestron or Savant in that regard if your WiFi or central processor goes down.

I don’t think the comparison to X10 is fair, because Ube looks like more of a wizard-based programming interface (a la Harmony). The only technical competency required by the homeowner is to physically install the gear and connect it to his network.

If anything, this could be a way to introduce new customers to the idea of whole-house control and possibly encourage sales of more mature systems in the future, especially when they realize the limitations of a basic system like this. I won’t be buying any, but I give Utz an A for effort.

Posted by Dan  on  10/04  at  09:23 AM

@paulcunningham

I agree. Utz certainly deserves an A for effort. It is good to know that it will still work locally in the event of a network failure.

I suppose, if anything, this takes automation in a better direction. Just like VOIP, IPTV and the convergence of other technology to more IP based protocols, I like the idea of home automation tech taking on the form of IP systems and networks. If the communication protocols were more aligned with more modern IP based protocols we could do away with expensive bridge devices and middle-ware. After all, most of the newer devices are mini computers with CPUs and networking capabilities.

Posted by Justin Arnold  on  10/09  at  12:25 PM

Yes there are some challenges to overcome but the benefits far out way them.  Personalized content based on how households interact with their home, devices, and products within it is huge.  One could deliver relevant content/ads/offers via media channels based on device state.  Take that a step further, for example, if you knew what type of laundry softener I used you could target ads to my devices when, say, Living Room TV is ON and Washing Machine is ON.  Consumer Packaged Goods companies have very limited visibility into product consumption – this type of data could be invaluable to them.

As for big brother – the power to allow their data to be shared should always reside with the consumer.  I would opt in for relevancy & convenience NOT to be blanketed with content/ads/offers for products & services that are not important to me.

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