Smart home management firm AlertMe bought out by British Gas

The British smart home outfit AlertMe has a long history with British Gas – back in 2009 it scored its first trial with the country’s biggest energy supplier, and in 2012 it was chosen to provide the software for British Gas’s smart meters across the country. Its technology also underpins British Gas’s Hive Active Heating system.

Now the two have formally tied the knot. On Friday British Gas announced it was buying out AlertMe, in which it already held a 21 percent stake, for a net cost of £44 million ($68 million). AlertMe said the deal was worth an overall $65 million ($100 million). British Gas parent company Centrica said it expected the transaction to be completed by the end of the quarter.

Centrica said the purchase would give it a connected home boost in its other territories, such as the U.S. (where it owns Direct Energy) and Ireland (where it owns Bord Gáis.)

AlertMe provides a modular connecting home system called Omnia, comprising an energy analytics software service, energy monitoring and control, and home automation – covering everything from surveillance and various alarms to remotely controlled door locks.

The company makes the smart home management system sold by Lowe’s in the U.S. under the “Iris” brand. Then there’s its AlertMe Cloud, running on Amazon Web Services, which ties the whole caboodle together and comes with APIs for device and application partners.

AlertMe also has customers in other energy providers such as Essent in the Netherlands, which is part of energy giant RWE. I asked the company where such non-Centrica deals will stand, and a spokeswoman told me that “as far as existing customers are concerned, there’s no change.”

“The intention in the global market is selling the product as a platform-as-a-service — there are opportunities beyond the Centrica group companies,” she added. AlertMe currently has 70 full-time employees and made £17.8 million in revenues in 2013.

Samsung finally launches a smartphone running its Tizen OS

After several false starts, Samsung has launched a phone running its Tizen OS. The Z1 goes on sale Wednesday in India.

The Z1 is on a low-spec device sold at budget prices — it’s not meant to compete against the iPhone or Samsung’s high-end Galaxy Note and Galaxy S lines. It will cost 5,700 Indian Rupees, or about $92.

Samsung-Unveils-the-Samsung-Z1-the-First-Tizen-Powered-Smartphone-for-Indian-Consumers

As was leaked in December, the Z1 has a 4-inch, 800 x 480 screen, an unspecified 1.2 GHz dual-core processor, 768MB of RAM, and a 3.1-megapixel rear camera. The Z1 supports Bluetooth 4.1, but it’s a 3G handset and it won’t work on LTE networks.

Some Android One handsets available in India are arguably a better deal — they have basically the same hardware for a similar price, and can take advantage of a better selection of software thanks to the Android platform. So Samsung will rely on bundled content to sway Indian consumers into trying the nascent operating system. Samsung points out that several “important apps” are already available for Tizen, including WhatsApp, which is key for the Indian market.

The Samsung Z1 will be bundled with entertainment apps and services, in a package called “Joy Box.” It includes free three-month subscriptions to services that stream Bollywood songs and movies.

Ultimately, Tizen’s future might not be on handsets. It appears that Tizen is better suited for Samsung’s internet of things efforts — it’s already the operating system for Samsung’s line of Smart TVs and some of its smartwatches.

At the same time [company]Samsung[/company] announced the Z1 on its website, it also published a blog post titled “Tizen in the Big Picture” on its corporate blog. After a casual mention of the Z1 in the first paragraph, the post does not mention smartphones again and instead focuses on Tizen’s advantages for the IoT in devices like wearables, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines.

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Misfit breaks into the smart home with a color-changing lightbulb

Misfit, a startup best known for making fitness trackers, announced its newest product on Tuesday, and you don’t wear this one: Instead, the Bolt is a connected lightbulb that changes colors.

Bolt lightbulbs screw into a common Edison lightbulb socket and can produce both colored light as well as white light equivalent to the brightness of a 60-watt CFL bulb, or about 800 lumens. That’s slightly brighter than Philips Hue, a similar line of color-changing connected LED bulbs, which only puts out 600 lumens. Also unlike Hue, Bolt bulbs don’t need a hub, because they connect to your phone through Bluetooth LE.

misfit smart bulb

One Bolt feature shows why Misfit thinks the smarthome is a good fit: Misfit trackers and the Beddit measure sleep, and Bolt bulbs can use that information to gently wake you up with a “simulated sunrise.”

Misfit

However, you’ll also need to download a second Misfit app if you already use the Flash or Shine. The Bolt connects to a new Misfit Home app (which will be available for iOS and Android) that gives users the ability to change the color or turn off your collection of Bolt bulbs from your phone. The Bolt will also work with Logitech’s Harmony Home hub remote and app.

It’s difficult to tell where Misfit Bolt lands in the growing list of connected lightbulbs hitting the market. At $49.99 per bulb and $129.99 for a set of three, it’s slightly less expensive than the Philips Hue, which costs $60 per bulb and requires a wireless bridge. Here’s a great guide to how the connected bulbs currently on the market stack up.

Bolt lightbulbs are available for pre-order today and are expected to ship in “mid-Febuary.”

Here are 15 more products that work with Nest

As I said in my article about the smart home trends leading up to CES, the consolidation of devices under a few big platforms will be a big topic at the show, and brands are not letting me down. Despite not having a huge presence at the show, Google-owned Nest is winning over the hearts and minds of developers and 15 device-makers want to announce their Nest integrations at the show.

So, if you have a Nest Thermostat or Protect, maybe you have reason to activate your Works with Nest section of the app to see how you might be able to link your Nest devices to your connected light bulbs, televisions or other gear. Apparently, according to Nest one in 10 Nest owners are using the program. I’ve tried it with LIFX bulbs and the Chamberlain garage door opener. My colleague Kevin Tofel even showed us how to talk to our Nest from our Android phones. So now, here’s the list of the most recent partners:

August smart lock silver_angled

  • August Smart Lock can use your locking or unlocking of the door to trigger the Home or Away setting on the Nest Thermostat.
  • Automatic, the connected device that tracks your driving, can tell your Nest when to start heating or cooling your home to get it closer to a comfortable temperature when you get home.
  • Insteon, the connected home system, has supported Nest unofficially for a while, but now you can control your Nest on the level from the Insteon app.
  • LG now works with Nest to help your LG appliances to help Nest figure out if you are home or not. On the flip side, if your Nest Thermostat notices you’re away, your fridge can go into an energy-saving mode. And if it realizes you are gone, LG will send you an alert if you left the oven on.
  • Lutron, like the Insteon integration, now lets you control your Nest from your Lutron app. It would be nice if an Away signal from the Nest also dimmed your Lutron lights.
  • Ooma, the IP telephone system, is also working with Nest and will call you and offer to call local emergency services if the Nest Protect notices smoke. It also offers more prosaic services such as call forwarding to your cell phone if your Nest thermostat tells it you are away.
  • Philips Hue lights can flash on and off to get your attention when the Protect senses a problem.
  • UniKey, the technology behind the Kwikset Kevo smart lock, can tell the Nest Thermostat who’s home and what temperature they like.
  • Withings, which makes the Aura Sleep System, will set your Nest Thermostat to a comfortable night-time temperature when you fall asleep and let the Thermostat know you’ve woken up.
My Lutron lights will soon work with my Nest!

My Lutron lights will soon work with my Nest!

Astute observers will notice that many of these options are replicating similar ideas across many devices, which makes sense given that many people have a variety of devices in their homes. They also will have different preferences on how they want to signal a return home, for example. One person may want their home warm when they get there and won’t mind paying a few extra bucks a month to heat their house, so they might let Automatic or their Android phone tell Nest to start heating the house when they are 10 miles from home. Others might want to start when they hit their garage door open or their front door open. With so many options they can pick and choose between their preferred scenarios and the devices they have.

Astute observers might also notice that there are not 15 partners. The remaining are coming soon so I’m going to list them and the month they are expected but skimp on what they will do since that could change and we’ll likely see a release at that time. Here they are:

  • Big Ass Fans ceiling fans (Available in February)
  • Beep speaker systems (Available in February)
  • ChargePoint EV charging (Available in June)
  • OSRAM/Lightify light bulbs (Available in March)
  • Stack light bulbs (Available in February)
  • Whirlpool washers and dryers (Available in April)
  • Zuli smart plugs (Available in April)

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Smart locks: the next smart-home winner?

Nest paved the way for the smart home, showing investors that consumers would pay $249 for a next-generation thermostat. Now many are wondering what other connected-home products could become breakout success stories. In 2015, smart locks, and security related products in general, are the most promising.

For a smart-home device to succeed in the consumer market it must be as easy to use compared to its non-connected version and there must be a return for the consumer in terms of cash/energy savings or convenience. If connectivity merely adds complexity, a product’s in trouble.

Connected thermostats have proved a winner based on these criteria. The lock is a technology that has stood the test of time since metal keys and locks first appeared about 900 AD. If we’re truly ready to move beyond their elegant simplicity, we’ll need some clear benefits. Smart locks must make our lives easier.

A number of startups have risen to the challenge, including August, Kevo, Lockitron, Danalock, and Goji, which all have smart locks for sale in the $179 to $299 price range. Jason Johnson, who co-founded August along with designer Yves Behar, noted to me, “We wanted to wait until we felt there was a real problem to solve and not just make another gadget for the home that was kind of cool but you used it for a few months. We wanted to make something that would last for many years. It’s not easy to do. It’s not easy to find a product to do that in the home.”

As I discuss in more depth in my recent Gigaom Research report, smart locks offer attractive benefits: Being able to grant a house guest or a repairman short term access to your home via a smart phone, going for a run without taking your keys, and being able to use a friend’s phone to open your house in case you do the smart lock equivalent of “losing your keys.”

The trick in the smart home, of course, is always moving beyond the early adopter crowd. Right now, products are being developed that include everything from a connected water monitor for your fish tank to a connected toaster. Getting the broader market to pay for connected products is a different story.

I am optimistic about smart locks, partially because it is a very promising market not just in the residential sector but also in hospitality. Consider an Airbnb host who only wants to grant access to her apartment for specific periods of time and who doesn’t want to have to go meet her guest. Now she can just authenticate the guest’s smart phone for a set number of days. Business travelers are another opportunity. Instead of showing up at a conference and seeing a line of 20 people waiting at reception, your phone can check you in and serve as your hotel room key. I could see big chains like Marriott or Hilton integrating this functionality into their apps.

The risks? Like any newish technology there are imperfections. One reviewer complained that if he entered through the garage and walked by the front door, where his August smart lock was installed, it unlocked even though he was inside the house. One of the reasons the Kevo smart lock requires a simple touch sensor to unlock is that its designers felt intent to unlock was important in preventing situations like this. Others have noted that with features that automatically lock the door after it closes, stepping outside without a phone means being locked out of your house. (Of course, this feature can be turned off and, anyway, plenty of traditional locks work this way too.). Still, I think consumers will move past all of these minor glitches as they get accustomed to how the technology works. The technology is also likely to get better as data collected from a couple years of consumer use produces quicker product cycles and improved functionality.

Smart locks have a lot of benefits for consumers, and, longer term, businesses interested in maximizing customer experiences will see value in them. I suspect that will be enough to move smart locks out of the early adopter set.

Image courtesy of Maxiphotoa/iStock.

WunderBar sensor kit gets notifications app for broader appeal

The open-source WunderBar kit is a distinctive attempt to get app developers to shift their attention to the internet of things. It takes the form of a chocolate bar, the individual pieces of which can be broken off, with each piece containing different sensor functionality, such as temperature and humidity, sound, light and proximity, and motion, and with low-energy Bluetooth tying the system together.

Whereas other systems like Spark and LittleBits are more geared toward people who like to fiddle around with little wires, WunderBar firm Relayr specifically targets app developers who are only starting to think about hardware. The system comes with software development kits (SDKs) for Android and iOS, and months after launch there are already interesting ideas springing up, such as InsulinAngel’s temperature-sensing capsule for the kits diabetics have to carry around (you don’t want the insulin to spoil) and BabyBico, a system that uses Wunderbar’s accelerometer and sound sensor to monitor babies’ sleeping patterns.

But Berlin-based Relayr, which has an international distribution deal with German electronics retailer Conrad, wants to broaden WunderBar’s appeal. To that end, on Thursday it released a new app called TellMeWhen, which makes it easy for WunderBar owners to get simple notifications when, for example, the proximity sensor is activated, or when the accelerometer and gyroscope detect movement, or when the temperature sensor’s environment gets too hot or cold.

WunderBar kit with "chocolate" casing

WunderBar kit with “chocolate” casing

“The goal of TellMeWhen was to provide immediate value for both developers and non-techies,” Paul Hopton, Relayr’s chief engineer, Paul Hopton, told me. “We have had a lot of interest from people who are not developers and would like to learn to program to be able to solve simple problems in their life with the WunderBar. We hadn’t expected that. We designed the TellMeWhen app to be able to deliver immediate value for these people. We are also reworking a lot of the documentation to cater for people who are absolute newbies.”

The app will work on any Android phone running version 4.0.3 of the OS or higher. Initially, it’s just doing direct notifications, but Hopton said Relayr hopes to fully integrate the platform with IFTTT in the second quarter of 2015. “Depending on feedback, we may also add some simple features like tweeting in the next major version of TellMeWhen,” he said.

I’ve been playing around with the WunderBar kit and a beta version of TellMeWhen and, as someone who doesn’t have the first clue about coding and breaks into a cold sweat at the sight of a breadboard, I very much like the concept. I found the WunderBar “onboarding” process – getting the system set up on my home Wi-Fi and fully communicating with the separate Relayr management app – a little shaky, with a fair amount of logging out and in again to get it to work, but once it was working it did what it promised to do.

Having recently bought a Raspberry Pi as well, I’m also glad to see that the WunderBar kit’s bridge module will plug into that (I need to get more into tinkering.) The bridge will also connect Wunderbar with the Grove and Arduino systems. With a field as new as the internet of things, and with so many low-cost toys to play with, compatibility is a definite benefit — particularly as the Wunderbar kit isn’t so cheap itself, coming in at just over $200.

This article was updated at 8.35am PT to change “Android 4.3” to “Android 4.0.3”.

Why the sharing economy needs the Internet of Things

Organizations ranging from Zipcar to bike-sharing programs rely on remote unlocking and return of assets. Sharing economy companies that rely on individual assets need to do the same to compete on experience and drive member loyalty.

Comcast has integrated its X1 platform with IFTTT

Users of Comcast’s Xfinity X1 set-top box can now make use of IFTTT to receive messages on their TV or even change the channel upon a certain event. Comcast’s Chief Business Development Officer Sam Schwartz unveiled the integration at a press event in San Francisco Wednesday, where he showed off a recipe that linked a WeMo switch to the X1, allowing users to change the channel whenever the switch was used. Other possible integrations include messaging on the TV, or the ability to switch to a sports channel whenever a viewer’s favorite team is in the news.

SmartThings can soon make use of any connected Samsung appliance

Samsung didn’t take long to make use of its newly-acquired SmartThings IoT platform: SmartThings CEO Alex Hawkinson announced Wednesday morning during the Samsung Developer Conference keynote that all of Samsung’s connected appliances will integrate with SmartThings going forward. This means that SmartThings users can now control Samsung’s connected washing machines and fridges together with Sonos loudspeakers, the Nest thermostat and connected lightbulbs from a wide variety of manufacturers. Hawkinson said that developers have thus far built more than 11,000 smart apps for the SmartThings platform, and that the platform supports more than 7400 device types altogether. (This post was updated at 10:56am to clarify that not all Samsung appliances are integrated just yet.)