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Back in the PHAST Lane?

The custom installation industry hasnt heard from PHAST founders Eric Smith and Will West since 1997, when they sold their home automation technology to AMX. But last month they returned, in a very big way, with a new company called Control4.

Control4s blockbuster launch at CEDIA EXPO reminded me of the early days of PHAST, when I was among the many dealers who committed to a very promising new residential control system.

It all began back in the early 90s when PHAST was rapidly developing a system that was ripe for the home market. They created innovative keypads, light switches and multi-room audio controllers using Windows-style drag-and-drop programming. AMX quickly purchased PHAST and signed up hundreds of residential dealers to invade Americas homes with the promise of delivering the brass ring of home automation.

At CEDIA 1997, I saw the big booth and heard all the promises of PHAST. I was impressed and I joined the crowd that was enlisting in the PHAST Army. I went to boot camp in Salt Lake and spent lots of money to become a dealer.

Then the nightmare began. AMX/PHAST introduced so many new products so quickly that bugs and problems turned into chaos. DMS keypads had connector problems and LCD glitches. New revisions quickly followed, but then their smart dimmers failed again and again, bringing systems down and needing to be replaced.

My first two installations included 200 PHAST dimmers. Every single dimmer failed and had to be replaced, and then replaced a second time. It was maddening, because a single device problem on the network made everything unstable and complicated troubleshooting.

To fix it all, AMX technicians sent memos that each Cat-5 run needed a network terminator and gave dealers diagrams on how to build them with resistors. So we ran back to our clients homes to open their devices and add terminators. System crashes only got worse. The next week, we ripped the devices out again for the new terminators that AMX had sent to fix them. The time that I spent troubleshooting and repairing ran into months and months, costing me more than $100,000.

In the middle of the dot-com craze AMX changed its name to Panja to redefine the company as a home Internet solution. NASDAQ prices were soaring and AMX saw dollar signs. Big companies like Intel and Honeywell were pouring billions into the future home network. While Panja focused on high-level marketing and watched its stock prices, dealers seemed to become second priority. Some dealers lost so much money during this time that they were forced to close their doors.

After hundreds of dealers signed up, trained and bought gear, something happened that I will never understand. Panja announced that it would begin to sell its prized color touchscreens directly to end users, complete with programming and bypassing its dealer network.

Eventually Panja found itself in deep trouble and subsequently replaced its entire management team, became AMX again and properly refocused its product direction for the future.

At CEDIA last month, it appeared that Control4 was repeating the pattern of AMX/PHASTs 1997 launch strategy. The company was introducing a brand-new product line, seemingly overnight, and expecting dealers to fully embrace its relatively unproven technology and aggressive sales goals.

I dont know how a dealer could make that sort of commitment without first performing their due diligence and insisting on hearing the whole story of PHAST. It is imperative that we find out what really went wrong, so that history does not repeat itself.

Thats what I will do in next months issue, where Control4 president Will West and AMX executive VP Rashid Skaf will candidly answer all of my questions and describe the valuable lessons that both companies have learned from the PHAST experience.