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​Startup aims to make home devices smart enough to anticipate what you need

Silk Labs wants to weave its software and services into all the new networked devices coming to homes of the future. Behind it: a trio fresh from the ambitious Firefox OS smartphone project.

Silk Labs CEO Andreas Gal
Silk Labs CEO Andreas Gal
Stephen Shankland/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- The team behind an ambitious attempt to rewrite the rules of smartphone software has banded together again at a new startup called Silk Labs that hopes to profit from the spread of computing smarts far beyond today's mobile devices.

Co-founders Andreas Gal, Chris Jones and Michael Vines previously worked on Mozilla's Firefox OS, software designed to power smartphones that Mozilla and a slew of industry partners hoped would loosen the grip Google and Apple hold on that important market. Firefox OS hasn't gotten too far, but at Silk Labs, the engineers believe they can sidestep those industry giants with a new collection of software and services for a coming era with billions of other interconnected devices.

This technological future, called the Internet of Things, envisions computer networks linking everything from lightbulbs to traffic lights and sprinkler systems to water mains. Its backers believe it'll mean remote control for just about anything that runs on electrical power.

In Gal's eyes, that interconnected technology will be more powerful if its elements aren't isolated but instead are part of a common fabric -- thus the name Silk Labs.

"We are trying to provide that piece that ties Internet of Things devices together," said Gal, Mozilla's former chief technology officer, in an interview here about Silk Labs.

Silk Labs is just one of many companies chasing what could be the next big computing revolution in a sequence that led from mainframes to personal computers to smartphones. It's a market that research firm International Data Corp. believes will grow from $655.8 billion last year to $1.7 trillion in 2020. To stand apart, Silk Labs is developing technology designed not just to make Internet of Things devices easy to control, but to make them smart enough to anticipate what people need so they won't have to manually control anything at all.

It's no wonder companies are racing to infuse the world with computing smarts. "It's going to be bigger than the smartphone," said IDC analyst Carrie MacGillivray. A smartphone is good for lots of jobs, but it's just one device, and the Internet of Things will extend to many devices. "It's going to surround us in our house and our cars," she said. Get ready for a day when washing machines alert manufacturers directly that an agitator needs replacement, and airplane jet engines call ahead when repairs are needed.

Among the big names in the market are Apple, whose HomeKit project is designed to give iPhone users an easy way to control Internet-connected gadgets, and Google, whose Brillo software can give those devices their own operating system. Intel, Microsoft and Samsung also are pushing for a place in the market, too.

But because the Internet of Things will be a vastly broader market than smartphones, it won't come under the dominance of two or three big players, as happened with Google and Apple in the smartphone realm, MacGillivray said: "I don't think it's going to be as consolidated."

Firefox OS team reconstituted

Gal left Mozilla in June after working on the Firefox Web browser and its cousin, the Firefox OS smartphone operating system. Silk Labs' co-founders are Jones, a Mozilla programmer who co-founded Firefox OS with Gal, and Vines, the former senior director of technology at chipmaker Qualcomm and the first Qualcomm engineer to work on Firefox OS. The startup has hired eight others, too, and is seeking seed funding from venture capitalists to grow faster, Gal said.

"There are probably only four or five teams in the history of humankind who built a smartphone OS from scratch, and I have one of them," Gal said.

A lot of Internet of Things projects have been for devices that can be controlled with a smartphone -- Google Nest thermostats and Philips Hue lightbulbs, for example. Silk Labs doesn't have anything against remote control, but it wants devices that work automatically and in concert with each other. Perhaps lightbulbs will get microphones or motion detectors that help them decide when to turn on or off. Or they could judge when a person is moving to another room and wirelessly tell a TV there to tune into the evening news, for example.

"We're trying to make truly smart devices for people. Right now with a Wi-Fi light bulb, you can use your smartphone to turn it on and off. Ours will try to understand what you want and address your need before you know what it is," Gal said.

The company is starting with products for the home, because buyers move faster there, Gal said, but he didn't detail which products it expects on the market first. If its partnerships with hardware makers don't move fast enough, it may release an "inspirational" product through Kickstarter to show what can be done and to get programmers interested.

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Nuts and bolts

At the lowest level, Silk Labs will offer a version of the Linux operating system that will let Internet of Things devices do tasks like fetch data from their sensors and send it over the network. At a higher level, Silk Labs will support a variety of communication technologies under development like Google's Weave and the AllSeen Alliance's AllJoyn, which let Internet of Things devices discover each other on a network and share data. When it's time to write the programs that run on particular devices, Silk Labs will supply developers with a version of a higher-level programming foundation. That foundation, called Node.js, runs programs written in the JavaScript language that transforms websites from static documents into interactive applications.

But that's just the nuts and bolts. One layer above that, Silk Labs will offer online services like data storage, payment mechanisms and authentication so people using a device can prove they are who they say they are. That's where Silk plans to make money, likely by combining free and paid "cloud computing" services that rely on Internet, Gal said.

"The cloud services help your Internet of Things device to be smarter and better," he said.

Gal argues that his history at Mozilla, which hundreds of millions of people trust with personal data as they use Firefox, demonstrates that his team has the skills necessary to ensure tight security and strong privacy.

But when it comes to actual Mozilla software like Firefox OS and its components, Silk Labs is steering clear. "We ended up not using any Mozilla technology at all," he said. "The Internet of Things space is so vastly different."

Silk Labs hopes to enable other companies' technology plans the same way Google accelerated the smartphone market with its Android software.

"Android did a big thing for the mobile industry. It allowed an entire industry to make interesting phone devices," Gal said. "This today is completely missing in the [Internet of Things] world."

Attracting support

Any Internet of Things startup like Silk Labs faces a major challenge luring outside programmers who will turn a useful foundation into a rich collection of compatible products, MacGillivray said -- something Google has done with Android, for example.

"The challenge for that company is to get a developer ecosystem around it," she said. "With the Internet of Things, we're going to see another large platform emerge, but there needs to be a critical mass of developers drawn to that center of gravity."

Gal knows Silk Labs will have to attract that support. That was a challenge for Firefox OS, too.

But Gal thinks Firefox OS was late, where Silk Labs is early, arriving just as the market is ready.

"Most of the components for any Internet of Things device you can think of have already been invented. All the parts are already there -- you just have to assemble them. But software and services are missing," Gal argued. "It's an unusual point in the tech industry where software has lagged hardware."