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What Went Wrong with Revolv? Theories on Home Automation Hubs

Revolv was a promising home automation hub, edged out by Wink, Lowe's Iris, Staples Connect, SmartThings and the Nest ecosystem. Why didn't they make it?


What Went Wrong with Revolv? Theories on Home Automation Hubs
Nest, along with home automation hubs like Wink, SmartThings, Lowe's Iris and Staples Connect, overshadowed Revolv.
Julie Jacobson · October 29, 2014

Revolv may have seemed like another home automation winner when Nest, a Google company, announced it would acquire the youngish crowd-founded smart-home company last week. But Nest is killing the product, starting now.

Revolv looked promising when it debuted in 2013 with a $299 home automation hub featuring seven radios for multi-protocol support.

Forget that Revolv never “activated” any of the radios except for Insteon, Z-Wave and Wi-Fi. It was still a good product with some of the better software in the DIY home-automation space, many reviewers have noted.

As we know, however, the best products (not saying this was it) don’t always prevail. But Revolv had a lot more going for it than being a good product.

The company seemed to do a lot of things right, creating a media bonanza with all of those smart-home protocols, and landing all the right speaking gigs at industry events. Last year they created a compelling Google Glass + Revolv video that garnered much attention before anyone else was showing cool applications for the specs.

Revolv contextual ads were ubiquitous, and its tweets were prolific—some say insufferable. (Two-and-a-half years’ worth of Tweets from @revolv have all been deleted.)

When people rattled off a list of four or five smart home hubs, Revolv was always in the mix, right up there with SmartThings, Lowe’s Iris, Staples Connect, Wink and the emerging Nest ecosystem.

So what happened?

Where Revolv Went Wrong

There are two fairly facile “reasons” for Revolv’s demise: price and the (lack of) protocol support.

On protocols, Revolv only supported IP (Wi-Fi), Z-Wave and Insteon. While Insteon is very well established and generally quite good, the RF/powerline protocol is not as revered as ZigBee, which should have been activated before Insteon (Revolv says ZigBee was slated for this year).

Was that a deal-breaker? Probably not.

The larger offense is that Revolv promised again and again that it was (not would be) the only home automation hub that could work with every smart device on the market, whether the devices communicated via Z-Wave, Insteon, IP, ZigBee, 400 Mhz (security), Lutron (ClearConnect), Bluetooth or other protocols.

Perhaps the very important constituency of early enthusiasts lost their patience?

RELATED: 2014: The Year Everything Changed in Home Automation

As with the protocol miss, it’s easy to point to the relatively high price of Revolv for its inability to win the home automation hub wars.

Wink, a software spinoff of GE-backed Quirky, has sold its hub through Home Depot for as little as 99 cents when accompanied by two other purchases.  The Staples Connect Hub retails for $50, while SmartThings and Lowe’s Iris go for $99. Even the highly evolved Vera3 controller sells for only $160.

Consumers have wondered: Is Revolv really three times better than the others?

On the other hand, when Revolv debuted last year, the $299 price tag wasn’t that far out of whack vis-à-vis the others. It’s just that the others all came down in price very quickly for a couple of reasons: they were more cloud-based, and they could afford a loss leader.

First, on the issue of the cloud, Revolv had too much processing going on in the hub itself, and not enough in the cloud, meaning the hardware would remain expensive and the model wouldn’t scale.

DID REVOLV ACTUALLY GO WRONG?

Commenting on Facebook, reader Ron Goldberg says, “They get bought out for (likely) beaucoup bucks and something went wrong? Doesn’t sound that way to me.” So did Revolv really “go wrong?”

We suspect that the principals made out just fine in the acquisition, and that some of their intellectual property will live on. To that end, things went “right” for them. What “went wrong” is the product and the business, which now cease to exist. That doesn’t make it a bad product (it wasn’t) or a bad business (hard to say) but the product and the brand failed to break through. And, certainly, Revolv “went wrong” by customers, who are thoroughly annoyed that the company that claimed to be the most futureproof of all home automation products ... ultimately turned out not to be.

There aren’t any real failures here, just a few lessons and musings on the market for home automation.

Secondly, with deep pockets and new business models, the other players made home automation hubs the razor, and the undiscounted peripherals the razor blades.

Staples Connect and Lowe’s Iris, each with its own products and huge retail presence, could pull that off. Wink could do it, at least for a while, by offering its own slate of peripheral products under the Quirky brand, not to mention its helpful financial and branding backing by GE.

Later, Wink’s launch partner Home Depot was able to push the price of the hub to less than a dollar during the original promotional period, and less than $50 today.

As for Revolv, while several key retailers carried the product, none put it at the center of its home automation message.

To that end, Revolv just sort of sat on store shelves, all alone, with no clear signage, and no obvious ecosystem. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that Revolv was sold as a hub, not packaged in kits—security, energy management, and the like.

So if you’re not one of the hardiest home automation do-it-yourselfers, you wouldn’t know what this thing did.

Some Other Theories on Why Revolv Didn’t Win

SmartThings was acquired by Samsung for $200 million earlier this year. While sales volume has not been revealed for either SmartThings or Revolv, it is widely understood that both lagged behind competitors by quite a bit.

SmartThings had peripherals, though, and Revolv did not. SmartThings had ZigBee, and Revolv did not (yet). And in the end, SmartThings got the $200 million.

Here is another possible reason Revolv achieved less traction than SmartThings: SmartThings looks cooler.

It’s a shallow thought, to be sure, but one that we learned well from Nest. Industrial design matters, even when it doesn’t matter.

RELATED: Industrial Design: Has Nest Taught us Nothing? (3/14)

As a big plastic red teardrop, Revolv looks clunky and unfamiliar and feels a little bit cheap. SmartThings, on the other hand, has that Apple look (shiny white puck) and feel (dense).

One other thought. SmartThings had a big chunk of users promoting the product through IFTTT, an increasingly popular cloud-based engine for if/then control of smart devices.

That partnership, which began last year, might not be responsible for much volume of SmartThings sales, but it created chatter among some of the most influential players in a DIY technology launch: enthusiasts.

Enthusiasts help to work out kinks, provide user feedback to the manufacturer and spread the word about the product.

Revolv didn’t have that grass-roots army, although it did announce IFTTT integration in September of this year, when it was too late.

Beyond all of these reasons for Revolv’s demise, it all boils down to this: At some point, you simply run out of money. We have zero doubt that Revolv received some generous offers to be acquired in the past. Perhaps those tantalizing payouts to Nest ($3.2 billion), Dropcam ($555 million) and SmartThings ($200 million) emboldened Revolv a little too much.

At the end of the day, there can only be room for so many home automation hubs.

Meanwhile, Revolv customers demand a refund.

The Future of Nest & Revolv

Why exactly did Nest buy Revolv? It’s quite possible that it simply wanted to quash a potential competitor, or at least smother a diversion that takes away from Nest. Revolv had garnered a considerable amount of mindshare, if not money.

Chances are they bought the company for some intellectual property and didn’t want to bother with legacy support issues.

Nest says it acquired Revolv for the expertise of its engineers.

Nest co-founder and VP engineering Matt Rogers told Re/code, “There’s a certain amount of expertise in home wireless communications that doesn’t exist outside of these 10 people in the world.”

But Nest has no need for the Revolv product, according to Rogers: “We are not fans of yet another hub that people should have to worry about.”

But Nest does want us to “worry about” the new protocol it is spearheading, called Thread. Thread was launched earlier this year as part of a group that includes Nest and a rather odd assembly of chip and device manufacturers such as Big Ass fans, a smart-home neophyte.

Thread is a mesh version of 6LoWPAN (IP over 802.15.4, optimized for home control) with some special sauce, presumably created by Nest because the company has claimed its already-deployed products are Thread-compatible.

Nest’s apparent vision for the home is a mix of cloud-to-cloud communications among traditional IP-enabled devices, coupled with in-home communications among Thread-enabled devices – ideal for mission-critical services that need to work even when the Internet is down.

As it happens, Revolv was one of the earlier “Works with Nest” partners – meaning the device could integrate with Nest – but that has nothing to do with Thread, which is a separate initiative.

With the wireless expertise of the Revolv team, there is no doubt they can jump in right away to assist with Thread or any other home automation initiative that comes Nest’s way.

RELATED
Nest Acquires Revolv DIY Smart Hub, Shuts It Down (10/14)
2014: The Year Everything Changed in Home Automation (10/14)
Meet SmartHome Ventures, The Startup Behind Peq Home Automation (8/14)
Confirmed: Peq Home Automation Will Sell at Best Buy with Icontrol Service (8/14)
Wink, Home Depot Aim to ‘Take Confusion Out’ of Home Automation (7/14)
Big Ass Fans Gets into Smart Home Biz; Teams with Nest on ‘Thread’ (7/14)
Led by Nest, ‘Thread’ for Home Automation is Most Promising IoT Standard Yet (7/14)
Samsung to Buy Smart Home Company SmartThings at Around $200 Million (7/14)
Wink Hub Supports Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Z-Wave, ZigBee, Lutron Caseta (6/14)
Analyzing Nest’s $555M Acquisition of Dropcam; Pro Security Device Coming (6/14)
Staples Connect Hub Slashed to $49; Newer Model Adds Bluetooth, ZigBee (6/14)
Industrial Design: Has Nest Taught us Nothing? (3/14)
Verizon Drops DIY Security/Home Automation Initiative (2/14)
Staples Connect vs. Lowe’s Iris: Home Automation Smackdown at CES 2014 (1/14)
Can Wi-Fi or Bluetooth Supplant ZigBee or Z-Wave for Home Automation? (1/14)
On Google, Nest and Home Automation: ‘This Changes Everything’ (1/14)
25 Home Automation Projects on Crowdfunding: A Roundup (7/13)
CES 2013 Shocker: Lowe’s Iris Home Automation Has Legs (1/13)
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JULIE JACOBSON
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  About the Author

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. Email Julie at [email protected]

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View Julie Jacobson's complete profile.


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