An Open Source: There’s no such thing as smart home. Yet. 

Dave Kavanagh, Director of Product Management

An Open Source is an interview series documenting some of the thoughts from leaders at LIFX. This is not an ad for LIFX. Nor will the questions necessarily close with answers. In order to be a company who continues to release world-first products, LIFX likes to poke around at ideas, and occasionally come up with some new ones. In this series we hope to lift up the kimono - well, not all the way - to give an insight into how we think and why we do what we do.

First up, Director of Product Management, David Kavanagh. David has been with the business from (almost) the very beginning. Formerly at Sensis and realestate.com.au, he has run eComm and Product Management projects at multiple companies and now at LIFX. He brings a unique perspective to the IoT industry having been very close to the LIFX customer for almost 7 years.

Black and white, close up head shot of David Kavanagh.

What is “Smart Home”?

There is no such thing as a smart home. Yet. It's still an aspiration. Currently, tech forward consumers are still battling with interoperability between devices, cloud services and local protocols. Am I a HomeKit, Alexa or Google house? Do I need a Wi-Fi Mesh router or will my free router from my ISP work? Will my ChromeCast sync with my lights for movie night? How many hubs do I need to plug in and hide in my study? Right now you need to be a very patient, high income, junior programmer to have connected your IoT devices into a semblance of what we think is a “Smart home”.

The great thing for us is we have always had a low barrier to entry thanks to the foresight of our founders who choose to place Wi-Fi directly into the lights. At the time (2012), this created huge engineering challenges, delays and costs. But what resulted was the simplest and most cost-effective way for a consumer to experiment with Smart Home. For many early adopters, a LIFX bulb was their first IOT product. They could buy one light, no hub required (or the financial commitment that came with it), plug it in, connect to their wifi and they were away. And with connection services, in particular IFTTT, these users helped define what the most wanted connections and recipes would be as the industry rapidly evolved.

 

So, do you think CHIP will succeed?

A collaboration between Apple, Amazon and Google would be an amazing boost to device manufacturers who need to ensure that their products work across each platform. This is currently a large overhead for our engineering team.

You’ll notice a lot more products with Works with Alexa and Google badges on various IoT devices given their more open nature, while getting products certified as HomeKit compatible has historically been a bigger challenge. Any movement on making things easier is a good step. However, I immediately start to question how this would work for innovation products that are basic and generic in operation. For example, how would they support infrared security mode on a LIFX + Light? Would we need to lobby for this as a feature inclusion? And does this restrict innovation?

 

Smart Home products have been around for a decade and whilst the industry has grown, it doesn’t seem to have reached the adoption levels predicted. Why? And do you think it will?

It all comes back to solving a problem for the consumer. Let’s take lighting for example. For most people, transitioning from incandescent lights to LED was a forced transition through mandated regulations, but for some it was voluntary as it solved two problems. Firstly, it reduced energy consumption and therefore saved money, and secondly, LEDs last much longer so they don’t need to be replaced as often. Even without the environmental benefits, the consumer was benefiting from the adoption.

Now, if we look at the transition from LEDs to Smart LEDs, the problem being solved is more nuanced and varied. For some people it might be the ability to schedule their lights to turn on in the morning or dim in the evening, for others it might be to improve sleep patterns. What previously was a commodity purchase, is now a higher cost lifestyle purchase and with that comes a more complex purchase decision. As prices of smart lights drop across the board, this purchase decision does become easier and more commoditised.

 

What product out there do you wish you’d have come up with?

I’ll steer away from the obvious iPhone and iPod and go back to my childhood and say the Nintendo Game Boy. This was the standout device of my generation growing up in the 90’s. Despite the dull green dot matrix screen, I recall spending hours in the back of the car on holiday road trips playing Super Mario and Tetris. Nintendo took what was mainly an in-home experience to a mobile device. They even managed to get good battery life in the days before the rechargeable mobile batteries we know of today. For it’s time, it was a groundbreaking and most importantly delivered a compelling experience to its target customer. Funny, I now find myself spending way too many hours staring at a similar small screen device. 

 

Where do you see smart lighting in 5 years?

Right now, there is a mass commoditization of smart lights at the base level occurring. So expect cheaper lights across all brands to be the norm in all homes. This will increase adoption, so it is a great thing for the industry. 

In general, we will see greater interoperability, users will be able to have a mixture of light brands and they will play well together. You will be able to buy a brand x bulb at the local store and know it will work.

The challenge for premium brands is to remain relevant and deliver products that solve more problems and add more value. Expect to see more integration fixtures that suit home decor and change with design trends. Expect to see more automation, e.g. under bed lighting guiding you to the bathroom at night at 5% brightness when it senses you wake. These sort of luxury experiences are what will set apart commodity and premium purchases.

 

If you had to compliment a competitor, what would you say of whom?

Philips Hue is the major player in our space. Working in a smaller product team, we are often envious of their ability to launch new products with impressive frequency. They’ve done a good job of this, and of communicating the everyday use cases of smart lighting to their large customer base. Where we have focused on product quality and customer experience (industrial design, light output, effects etc...), they have focused more on range expansion. The good news for LIFX customers is that having formed a robust and varied foundational range of light styles and socket types, LIFX too can now focus on range expansion, while having what we believe to be a superior platform of control, light performance and hub-less design. 

 

What products are coming up for LIFX in the next year or so?

We look at our product roadmap in two streams, platform and ranges. 

The platform stream is an upgrade to our latest technology to constantly improve connectivity across the range. Ensuring our lights are always connected is a core requirement and goal for LIFX, as it no doubt is for our competitors. This is a huge challenge given the factors outside our control such as the router quality and physical environment of a home. But if a LIFX light can not turn on/off that is our issue to solve, not to be blamed on your ISP router.

The more exciting stream of work is our new ranges. We have our first ever LIFX Switch coming out this year. This is a game changer for LIFX and moves us into Smart Home control for the first time. The LIFX Switch will allow a customer to control traditional lights and well as smart lights and other connected devices. It also creates a gateway for us to release new functionality enhancements in a similar way your Tesla updates overnight. Having a connected LIFX device with more memory, power and physical space than a light, that does not need to deal with heat issues (as lights do) opens up huge possibilities.

Our first ever LED Filament light will launch this year too, and is stunning. It will be available in three glass styles; clear, amber and smoke. We think this range will be extremely popular and initial reactions from press and consumers have been really positive. We also have a range of new LIFX Z kits that expand our range into gaming and home entertainment.

And, of course, much more I can’t talk about.