We huddle on a tiny astroturf lawn, waiting for our hosts while a Dropcam Pro aimed at the doorstep monitors our movements. It’s smart home suburbia, shrunk to showroom scale, and we’re here as guests of Wink, a Quirky subsidiary that is the latest entrant in the race to make our homes more responsive, efficient, and secure.
Chaz Flexman, Wink general manager, appears at the door and pulls a phone from his jeans pocket. As he guides us through the model connected home, locks open, blinds raise and lower, and lights dim.
Wink is betting that consumers want to buy better versions of the home products and appliances they already need, and use their smartphone as the built-in remote control for managing those devices. Plus, in a nuanced way, Wink is offering consumers a home that is not smart so much as it is connected; the "intelligence" comes from third-party product designers and consumers themselves, who are responsible for programming the triggers and shortcuts that govern how Wink-enabled products operate. Wink offers cohesion and control via its software platform and all-encompassing app—but little else.
That strategy stands in contrast to Nest, the smart home hub acquired by Google for $3.2 billion earlier this year. Nest features a hero shot of its signature thermostat at every opportunity, hoping to give consumers a hub-metaphor they can understand, as we've previously pointed out. Moreover, Nest is doubling down the idea of smartness, aiming for a future in which the high IQ of its platform is able to automate the work of optimizing the home environment. In the simplest of terms: Nest is betting on passive, contextual user experience, whereas Wink requires a more active one.
Ben Kaufman*, Quirky founder and CEO, believes that Wink’s intuitive offline-meets-online design, including a retail partnership with Home Depot, will convince homeowners to take the time to set up commands that are meaningful to them. "We’re approaching this as someone who knows how to talk to the consumer," he says. "Simplicity—that’s what’s needed."
Comparatively, Nest is going a step further, arguing that invisibility should trump simplicity. For example, imagine that you want to run your washing machine while you’re at work; you may not know the optimal time to do so, given water and electricity capacity, but Nest would like to solve that problem for you. In a sense, Nest has adopted the old-fashioned upstairs-downstairs premise that good service should be invisible—but will that be what consumers really want from their home gadgets and appliances?
When Nest recently announced that it would be opening its platform to third-party developers, it placed that value front and center. As the company boasts on its website—in a not so subtle jab at offerings like Wink: "The Nest Developer Program isn’t about simply linking and remote controlling the devices in your home. Anyone can do that. This is about working behind the scenes to anticipate people’s needs and make their lives easier."
It’s an ambitious vision that will be daunting to execute, given homeowners’ differing and ever-evolving preferences—heck, half of married couples don’t seem to understand one another’s behavior, let alone anticipate it. It also depends on Google’s far-reaching ability to gather data about your relationships, your habits, and your possessions, in order to deliver an experience that feels like magic.
Wink makes no claim on a magic—but nor does it make a claim on your personal data. "We’re not selling ads, we don’t need to know where you are," Kaufman says.
Instead, Wink assumes a basic level of digital know-how and and offers flexibility and control. The API of digital "recipe-maker" IFTTT (If This Then That) powers the Wink app, making it possible for consumers to connect any of the 115 IFTTT channels, ranging from Facebook to SMS, to any product included in the Wink ecosystem. So far, those 60 compatible physical products include big-name appliances like GE ovens and newly-launched devices like the Rachio sprinkler controller.
As that list expands, "we’re going to work with products that are direct competitors to Quirky," Flexman says. And what about Nest? It’s not available at launch, "but we’re working on it."
Through Wink, consumers interact with connected products in three ways. At the most basic level, they can monitor activity and keep tabs on maintenance. In addition, they can establish rules called "robots" based on specific triggers; for example, "when the outside temperature rises above 87 degrees, turn on the Aros air conditioner."
In a more advanced way, consumers can create shortcuts that effectively aggregate a collection of robots in a single button. A "cool down the house button," for example, might lower the blinds and dim the lights while also turning on the AC. Dreaming up these use cases falls to the homeowner; Wink downloads as a blank slate.
"Smartness" can also reside in Wink-compatible products, giving consumers a glimmer of the intelligence Nest is selling. Chris Klein, cofounder of Rachio, says that his team’s sprinkler controller uses inputs like a backyard’s slope and shade, plus GPS coordinates, to determine when to water the lawn. "I got sick of sprinklers watering in the rain," says the Denver native. However, in the Wink universe, nothing that Rachio "learns" over time will flow back to the rest of the house, unless the consumer acts on an insight.
Ultimately, Quirky sees the platform as an important future resource for building better, smarter devices. Kaufman anticipates that data from Wink about its full ecosystem of products will help guide invention at Quirky: "If we find a product is constantly failing, that’s an insight we can use," he says.
And Kaufman means business: the systems are already in place to capture that data. Click through the Wink app to call customer support, as this reporter did, and a woman's voice chirps the standard greeting: "Hello, this is Quirky. How can I help you?"
*An earlier version of this article spelled the name of Quirky CEO Ben Kaufman incorrectly.