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Introducing Control4: Automation Vets Plan ‘Unrivaled’ Product Launch

PHAST founders Will West and Eric Smith to unveil IP-based control system at CEDIA 2004.

Julie Jacobson · June 1, 2004

SALT LAKE CITY – A start-up company has created a new IP-based home-control solution that is reliable, affordable, scalable, and simple to install. The company co-founder declares, “It’s time for the market to be something more than just a market for the wealthy.” He claims that his team of engineers is the smartest around, with experience in home automation, PC networking, and all of the other disciplines required to launch a good IP-based control system. And the company is well funded, sure to be around for a long time.

Yeah, sure, we’ve heard it all before. But this story seems pretty credible.

The company is called Control4. Its founders are Will West, Eric Smith, and Mark Morgan. West and Smith are the same guys that founded PHAST Corp. almost 10 years ago. PHAST was, by most accounts, the first robust home-control system with an intuitive interface for both programming and user operation. AMX acquired PHAST in 1997, and continued the Landmark product line based on the PHAST platform.

West and Smith left AMX in 1998 to launch another venture, STSN, which is today the leading provider of Internet service for the hospitality industry. When you plug your laptop into an Ethernet port in a hotel room, and it just works, chances are you’re connecting through STSN.

Despite their success with STSN, the entrepreneurs always had a different passion. So they left the hospitality business last year to apply their STSN experience to home automation. The lessons from STSN are significant, says West. “What we do in a hotel with STSN is much more complex than what you have to do with home networks,” he explains. “You’re going into a building with hundreds and hundreds of tenants, they all have different network configurations on their computers, and the tenants change every day. The next day, when new tenants arrive, you have to be able to get them connected within three minutes, or you lose their business.”

Smith adds, “Regardless of what your laptop is configured to do, it just works. We developed solutions that allow your machine to think it’s on the right network.”

Those same solutions are employed in Control4’s residential products, Smith says. “Imagine if you had to change your laptop configurations to communicate with each different subsystem. That’s pretty much how it works today with other products on the market. With Control4, we automatically discover those devices.”

Automatic discovery and seamless integration is especially important in the Control4 business model, where dealers are encouraged to sell entry-level systems today, then “attach” other products to the network in the future.

A Control4 system can start out as a simple “attachment” to an existing home network by adding—say, an IP-enabled thermostat or light switch—but it can expand to rival the highest-end products on the market today. This can be done with a modest up-front investment (as little as a few hundred dollars), and the building blocks continue to be relevant as the system grows. In other words, customers don’t need to chuck their entry-level products; they simply build upon them.

“They don’t have to go spend $60,000 on a lighting system. They can do it in small chunks so in a couple of years they have a fully automated house,” says Smith. “It’s a razor/razor blade scenario for the dealer.”

Control4 hardware and software provides “hooks” for adding various subsystems—whether wired or wireless—making it particularly easy for dealers to add new applications to a customer’s network. That notion might not seem novel, but West insists our industry hasn’t seen anything like it. “A huge reason we’ve gotten back into the business is our sheer amazement of how little has been done.”

When it rolls out product in the fourth quarter of this year, Control4 will offer its own subsystems such as lighting, multiroom audio, and HVAC control, but it will also support subsystems from other manufacturers.

It’s a familiar strategy among the 20-plus automation startups of the IP era, but few have been able to pull it off – for at least two reasons: 1) They mistakenly believe that home systems integrators are IT (information technology) professionals and 2) They can’t write and maintain the drivers for controlling third-party subsystems.

Control4 has these problems licked, according to West: “We all know we’re moving into an IT world; we all know that dealers have a critical need to be IP experts; and we all know that many aren’t. … Using our expertise from STSN, we can help make every installer feel like an IP expert.”

As for the tricky proposition of supporting third-party subsystems, Control4 employs a team of roughly 40 engineers, many of whom are focused on writing and maintaining drivers for security, lighting, HVAC, communications, A/V and other subsystems. “We’re not just two guys in a garage doing everything ourselves,” says West.

Unlike many automation start-ups, Control4 has not underestimated the resources required for a successful product launch. The company has raised almost $20 million from venture capital investors, as well as contributions from West, Smith and other Control4 executives.

The backing should be apparent this fall, when Control4 makes its first trade-show appearances. The company debuts at the CEDIA Expo (Sept. 8-12, Indianapolis) in a 40 x 50-foot space in the upstairs ballroom – the largest space available given the constraints of the show. Two months later (Nov. 15-18), the company has a large booth at the Electronic House Expo in Long Beach, Calif.

If West is right, “It ought to be a launch that really hasn’t been rivaled by anything.”


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  About the Author

Julie Jacobson is founding editor of CE Pro, the leading media brand for the home-technology channel. She has covered the smart-home industry since 1994, long before there was much of an Internet, let alone an Internet of things. Currently she studies, speaks, writes and rabble-rouses in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V, wellness-related technology, biophilic design, and the business of home technology. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, and earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a recipient of the annual CTA TechHome Leadership Award, and a CEDIA Fellows honoree. A washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player, Julie currently resides in San Antonio, Texas and sometimes St. Paul, Minn. Follow on Twitter: @juliejacobson Email Julie at julie.jacobson@emeraldexpo.com

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