Belkin goes all in on the home of the future

The company known for its wireless routers and accessories is amping up its efforts in automated home products, switch by switch and pipe by pipe.

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Belkin CEO Chet Pipkin stands next to a WeMo cube at the 2014 Collision Conference in Las Vegas. Donna Tam/CNET

For Belkin founder Chet Pipkin, the company that began in his parents' Hawthorne, Calif., garage wants to go back home.

After building Belkin into a consumer-electronics brand with more than 1,200 employees and a product line that includes everything from Wi-Fi routers and iPad keyboard cases to power adapters over the past 31 years, Pipkin has seen the future. And his vision has him looking back to his humble garage roots as inspiration for the company's next big push: the smart home.

Pipkin, an easy-going, 53-year-old Southern California resident, has already wired his home. It tells the father of seven when his kids leave the house based on their Wi-Fi signal, lets his wife boil water for tea without getting out of bed in the morning, and tracks the use of all kinds of electronics, from an Xbox to lighting fixtures, through a smartphone app.

"I just love it," he said about the ability to open and close his garage door even when he's not home. "If there's a delivery person, I can see them through the camera and I can talk to them. I can open the garage door to let them in and then close the garage door after."

That's the kind of new thinking behind Belkin's home automation line WeMo, which is the company's biggest effort yet to tap into the rapidly burgeoning smart-home market. ABI Research estimates that the connected home market was worth $9.2 billion in 2013, and will grow to $15.1 billion in five years.

That market of opportunity has drawn tech titans including Google, which ponied up $3.2 billion for smart home thermometer maker Nest in January, and Apple, which earlier this week unveiled its HomeKit smart home platform baked into its iOS 8 mobile operating system for the iPhone and iPad.

Belkin WeMo Light Switch
C. West McDonald / CNET

Belkin already sells switches and motion sensors -- small devices that let people transform an appliance into a smart device -- and a high-definition, Wi-Fi-connected camera for monitoring and communicating. But new products are in the works. In January, the company showed off LED lights, a smart slow cooker and a do-it-yourself maker kit at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Last month, Belkin demonstrated WeMo Echo Technology hardware for monitoring water and electricity usage homes.

Belkin expects to make the LED lightbulbs available in September, while the CrockPot and Maker may go on sale as early as August. The water and electricity products, though, may take another year or two.

While Belkin has just started to be demonstrate its home products in recent years, the company has been working on this technology for a decade. "The technology needed to catch up a bit in order for us to do it in an approachable way, a flexible way and inexpensive way," Pipkin said last month at the Collision Conference in Las Vegas. "It was being done but in a very expensive, rigid way."

Belkin wouldn't say how much money it makes from its existing home automation products. The privately-held company rings up more than $1 billion in sales a year.

"Tea. Earl Grey. Hot."

Having computers control home functions has been a theme in popular science fiction for decades. Think "Star Trek," where a computer triggered all of the ship's actions, including replicating food or drink for the crew. Or the TV series "Eureka," where SARAH, a fully automated house, dimmed the lights, turned on the shower, and made breakfast.

Fiction turned into fact with custom home automation, which includes installing light and home entertainment controls through wiring. But this approach costs tens of thousands of dollars. Luckily for consumers, the proliferation of smartphones in the past seven years has given people a way to control relatively inexpensive smart home products, from thermostats ($249) to smartlocks ($199).

Companies including AT&T and Comcast have jumped on the smart home bandwagon in the last two or three years by offering platforms for a connected home, ABI Research analyst Jonathan Collins said. Hardware manufacturers like Philips and Sonos have also delivered connected products, such as light bulbs and speakers.

"The smart home market is one that's really going through a lot of change," Collins said. "Belkin was quite quick to benefit from that change."

But the notion is far from mainstream. Collins said more customer education is needed, with service providers companies such as AT&T and Comcast helping to tell the story. Since people already use those telecom and broadband services in their homes, it's more likely they will buy smart home platforms from them as well.

"The next step is 'OK, these capabilities exist," Collins said. "Are they worth what you have to pay for them?'"

Using the maker movement

To help spread the word, Belkin partnered with existing platforms like If This Then That (IFTTT), which lets people program actions for appliances through a series of directions, called recipes, over the Internet. For example, one of these recipes uses a WeMo switch and motion sensor to detect motion in a cat's litter box. The motion will trigger an email, sent to the cat owner, so he or she will know when to clean the box.

Another IFTTT user tried something more creative.

"Just bought this," tweeted @itsthomson, along with a photo of a decorative Christmas deer covered in lights. "To be used with WeMo and activated when one texts 'expecto patronus' to a Twilio number using IFTT." (Expecto patronus refers to a spell from Harry Potter that makes a deer-shaped beam of light leap from a wand.)

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WeMo Maker Belkin

One of Pipkin's examples is also a pet peeve -- when the sprinkler system goes off automatically while it's already raining. Typically, when this happens, you have to shut off the sprinkler system manually.

"But what if I'm not home?" he said. "What if I'm at work and it rains and I'm thinking about my sprinkler system. It's just kind of irritating. Why do I have to worry about it at all? The Internet knows that it's raining in my ZIP code."

Similar to the Pipkin's garage door setup, the sprinkler system is hooked up to a WeMo Maker, which turns any low voltage device into a WeMo-controlled device by hooking up the wires to sensors. Then, an IFTTT recipe makes sure the system will turn off when it's raining. The recipe uses data from Yahoo Weather to determine if it's raining in the neighborhood. If it is, it sends a shut-off command to the sprinkler system. Another recipe may command the sprinkler system to turn on when the weather is clear or cloudy.The setup is an example of the maker kit's abilities, but "you got to be comfortable with a pair of wire strippers and not everyone is," Pipkin said.

That's the why the company has invested in single purpose smart products as well. A partnership with appliance maker Jarden resulted in the smart slow cooker, expected in August. Other items -- a Mr. Coffee smart coffee maker, a Holmes smart space heater and a Holmes air purifier -- are expected this winter. Consumers will be able to control each remotely with their smartphone.

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WeMo Power Belkin

Ultimately, releasing something like WeMo Maker provides Belkin with some market research. Pipkin said the company will see what happens and potentially generate Belkin prototypes based on how people use his products.

Smarter water and power?

On stage at the inaugural Collision Conference (a guerilla-style convention for tech investors and entrepreneurs) in May, Pipkin showed Belkin's Echo Technology, which powers WeMo Water's monitoring technology, and had it track the usage of water in the convention centers toilets and sinks.

One revelation: Women were more likely to wash their hands after using the restroom. WeMo Water noted the number of toilet flushes compared to the number of times people turned on the sinks. The company is applying the same idea of tracking the use of utilities to things like electricity and gas.

"WeMo Water is likely to be our biggest thing over time," Pipkin said. "The rate of our population growth is slowing but the rate of consumption of water is really scary."

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WeMo Water Belkin

He knows a thing about scarcity of water. Hailing from Los Angeles County in California, where water availability is a sensitive issue, Pipkin said there's currently no way to track water effectively. WeMo Water will be installed into a home's plumbing system. "Right now we do a really bad job, as people, monitoring our water and electricity." He compares it to going to a grocery store where products don't have listed prices and then just getting a total without itemized prices when you exit.

Belkin is still testing Echo Technology and is in a trial with the US Department of Defense, which gave Belkin a $2 million grant to install WeMo Power's technology in military bases.

WeMo Water probably won't be ready for the public until next year, with Power following within a year or two in some product form. Don't expect a polished system though. Pipkin said it will take multiple years before "really getting WeMo Power right."

While he knows not everyone can envision this world of of his, just yet, Pipkin thinks Belkin's smaller products -- the switches and appliances -- can help people take a step in that direction. Then, Pipkin hopes, they'll want to further explore the bigger ideas around home automation, like WeMo Maker and Echo Technology. "When a lot of people get a taste of it, they're going to want to do even more."

 

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