Mark Morgan, Eric Smith and Will West know how to stay connected. For the past decade, the three have stayed close friends, all living, working and raising families in scenic Salt Lake City, Utah. Over the years the triumvirate has also collaborated on influential automation and networking companies, including PHAST and STSN.
Now the connectivity pioneers are taking center stage to promote their new company, called Control4, that they hope will fill gaps in residential technology and provide the reliability needed to move the industry forward. Control4, they say, has the staying power, resources and unique expertise to bring to fruition the next generation of home automation and first true vision of IP-based systems.
This new organization is the fourth business endeavor for the enterprising Control4 founders. Their first foray into the industry was with a company called Synergy, a dedicated media retrieval provider for large college campuses.
Smith and West then started the residential control company, PHAST, in 1995. PHAST specialized in residential automation solutions and received early acclaim for its forward-thinking, high-end protocol. Now a division of AMX, PHAST has since brought numerous control products and software platforms to market.
The two friends sold PHAST in 1997, and then in 1998, with the addition of Morgan, began STSN, a manufacturer of wired and wireless broadband services for the hospitality sector. Every month, according to STSN, hundreds of thousands of business travelers use STSN to keep them connected during hotel visits. The companys broadband solutions are available in more than 175,000 hotel rooms in 200 international cities. STSN is headquartered in Salt Lake City, with ancillary offices around the globe. West serves on STSNs board of directors.
The multifaceted staff at Control4 represents diverse interests. Will West, chief executive officer, brings to his new organization a foundation in finance and business management. He served in key management positions for government as well as big business.
Mark Morgan has taken the sales helm as vice president of marketing. He is charged with branding the companys new product nationally and internationally, and creating implementation strategies.
Eric Smith, chief technical officer, possesses expertise in broadband and programming. He is the technical trump card of the new group.
Control4s vice president of engineering, Paul Nagel, previously served in an engineering capacity with Pre-com and Megahertz/USRobotics. Control4 had the fortune of bringing him on board because of his passion for home automation.
“We are all drawn to the residential industry because we love it,” West emphasized about the groups motivations. “There has been a total lack of what we think is important to drive this industry forward. There are many buzzwords, but there is truly very little reality in the way of IP-based control systems. Control4 wants to change that,” he said.
“There are systems with IP-based add-ons, or an IP-arm, but they are not truly IP-based,” Smith added. “Until IP systems are truly actualized, what do you do as a dealer? It makes it very difficult to really create a standards-based control system.”
The group saw these detrimental patterns and knew that they had both the creative vision and the expertise to help. The three are well-versed in the plug-and-play, broadband arena and felt that, when combined with their PHAST experience, they could bring to market an automation system with all of the pieces and parts necessary to provide true IP-control in the home.
Smith believes that their collective insight and expertise from STSN technology and its successful business model will only augment Control4s product creation. “The hotel environment for connecting broadband is arguably the hardest one there is, and weve solved it,” Smith asserted. “If you call your local phone company to install DSL, they will send a technician out to set everything up, configure and test your machine. Then he leaves, and they will bill you every month, forever. In a hotel room, its a totally different situation. In the Marriott in New York City, for example, you have about 1,500 rooms. Each one of those rooms has a sales guy with no clue about IP. He doesnt have technical assistance. The connection just has to work. No excuses. And more importantly, there is a new hotel guest in the room basically every night. And the connection has to work every single time.”
Because STSN only reaped revenue if hotels purchased its service, it was critical that engineers found ways to guarantee flawless connections, time after time. “Creating STSN gave us experience solving problems no one else had to solve,” Smith stated. “Network nodes are all different. Everyones computer has different settings, and settings change every day. You have three minutes to get them online, and if you dont, you lose their business.”
With home automation as their first love, Morgan, Smith and West continued to attend CEDIA EXPO during all of their years at STSN. Each year they expected to see a new competitor enter the residential control space, bringing full IP-based automation online. But much to their surprise, Morgan said, it never appeared. The group recognized the opportunity as a beacon. The experts at making broadband work for innumerable hotel guests every night knew it was the right moment to marry their distinct skill sets and innovate next-generation platforms.
“With our experience with plug-and-play, we can take different devices, like IP-enabled devices, and make them plug-and-play,” Smith explained. “Were going to make it so that the CEDIA dealer does not need to be a network guy to do IP systems.”
The Control4 product line that will roll out at CEDIA in the fall will include wired and wireless IP-based control systems for residential security, lighting, audio/video, whole-house entertainment media distribution, HVAC, phone and intercom. Conveniences such as electronic grocery lists, sprinkler system control and automatic email alerts will also be available.
The product suite will be totally streamlined, the founders say, so that installers can get the most out of the system without learning esoteric programming languages. There is no proprietary trickery in either the wired or wireless products; the most difficult programming work is done before the product ships. Morgan, Smith and West assert that the simplicity of their new system will save dealers time and money.
“Were going to grow the market by offering a solution that is replicable, and making it easier to design, install and program serious systems,” Morgan said. “There will be new entrants into this industry who previously did not have access to home automation.”
Control4 hopes that its autumn line launch will usher in a new culture of residential automation technology that is affordable, easy to install in new or retrofit projects and modular. By doing so, the company plans to empower dealers who have never installed home control systems to add the skill set.
Despite a lack of specific product specs or pricing, which will be public in August, the Control4 website (www.control4.com) is already attracting integrators. The founding consortium understands that dealers have seen many new companies come and go. They also know that many dealers are loyal to AMX, Crestron, ELAN and others. Regardless, they are confident that once their message hits the CEDIA street, they will be viewed as a formidable alternative.
“We can get beyond the instability question pretty quickly,” West stated, “just by looking at our experience creating the world leader in broadband for business travelers, and what, at its time, was the home automation leader. There is no other company in this space that rivals those successes.”
Margot Douaihy is managing editor of Residential Systems in New York City.