2012
10.17

I came across news of a nifty new little device called Ube. Pronounced (you-be), it offers you a series of smart dimmers and outlets that you swap in for existing ones in your home, essentially making anything you plug into them “smart.” But haven’t we heard this story before?

We have seen a product called the modlet from the company ThinkEco, which plugs into your existing wall outlet and allows you to plug in devices that it will then monitor and control the energy use for and wirelessly communicate the information to your home computer through a USB receiver. The thing about the modlet is it would automatically eliminate standby power, which is the energy that devices consume while turned off or in sleep mode.

Then there are the smart outlets that come as part of the Iris Smart Home offering from Lowe’s which allow homeowners to perform pretty standard “smart” tasks with turning their devices on and off.

I will go out on a limb here and say neither of these two products has taken over the market en masse. Ask the average person on the street if they know what a modlet is, and I am sure what you will get back are a bunch of puzzled looks. And as for Lowe’s, I’ve casually polled friends and family in the past about their knowledge that they can get smart home components at their local hardware store, and the blank stares and shrugs they give in return tell me all I need to know about how much awareness has been built around this program.

Enter Ube. These outlets and dimmers contain 32-bit high performance ARM microprocessors running the Android OS. The dimmer switch, for example, runs a full IP stack and communicates using Wi-Fi by connecting to your local SSID. And for those not interested in swapping out dimmers or outlets, Ube also offers a smart plug that you plug into an existing electrical outlet, and performs pretty much the same functionality. From there Ube will be launching an app that will allow you turn things that are plugged into these smart outlets on and off, essentially creating a smart home without having to make a huge change to your home’s existing infrastructure.

So, what makes Ube different? At this point I cannot quite answer that question, but I can tell you what will make Ube different. If the company is truly interested in trying to make an impact on the market they will take ever effort they can to create awareness around the product. To this point, this hasn’t been done effectively by any company making smart-home products, with the possible exception of Nest (but I will get to this product a bit later).

Because I have to tell you that the idea of a smart plug in general is just plain cool. Today’s technology advancements make it so that I don’t have to rip out my home’s infrastructure in order to make it smart. I simply have to install some brainy little outlets and download an app.

Look, I have read all the cons around why such a product won’t take off in the market. Some say it is hard for something as simple as a smart plug to jump into a race that service providers are targeting heavily. You have providers like Verizon that have made the smart home (in some form) a target for a few years now, and AT&T just jumping into the ring. But I don’t know about you, but I really haven’t seen service providers controlling the market by any means.

Another dig against a smart plug is the cost factor. Ube company officials didn’t respond on my inquiry right away, but if the product carries a price tag like the modlet ($50 for the home starter kit) then it will take some convincing for customers. When you compare that against the few dollars you spend on your average “dumb” outlet you tend to get a lot of pushback. It sends people into “prove it” mode, forcing the creators to give a compelling enough case that forces people to shell out a good chunk of dollars for fixtures that otherwise they would pay little-to-no attention to in their home.

I have said it before and I will say it again with regards to the smart home: In order for it to work, people need to be compelled to buy the products and services. If giant companies cannot make the market shift on a dime, it will certainly take even greater efforts from lesser-known companies.

So, when cool things like Ube emerge (word in not until 2013) their success is contingent upon the ability to move markets. Here comes my Nest parallel. Before this smart thermostat that actually learns your habits for in-home temperature and adjusts accordingly came along, I guarantee no one thought twice about their thermostat. Today it is one of the coolest gadgets on the block. Things like that move markets. And if Ube can get people to notice their electrical outlets and think, “Yes, I do want my outlets to be smart” well, then they will be on to something big.

No Comment.