During its relatively short history in the industry, I was never sure what to make of control systems manufacturer Savant. Like many a veteran dealer who has been burned by committing too early to the likes of Frox, PHAST, Touchbridge, and others, I had been taking a wait-and-see approach with the four-year-old company out of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. For a slideshow of the event, click here.
Heading into the company’s third-annual dealer conference in Hyannis, Mass, last week Savant really had some convincing to do that it wasn’t going to be one of those fly-by-night, here today gone tomorrow, vaporware manufacturers that shines brightly before burning through its start-up capital and disappearing from the stage.
Not too far into the day-and-a-half event, I was already convinced that the former telecom techies from the Cape were here to stay and to compete. And I wasn’t alone in my assessment. Many in the group of 200-plus dealers also seemed ready to jump in with both feet after attending product overviews and training and an impressive Demo Alley full of REAL, shipping products. I could sense from the dealers and reps in attendance that they were finally ready to commit to a value proposition that seems practically joined at the hip with Apple's iPhone and iPod touch momentum. And Savant even seemed poised to take a “swipe” at the dominance of legacy brands in the CI channel… but more about that “swipe” thing later.
After arriving at Boston's Logan Airport on June 3, I was joined by three dealers for a limo ride out to the Cape. Nearly three hours later (love that traffic!), I knew the dealers really well and had a good handle on what they were looking for from Savant. Each one noted that they had been Savant dealers for a short time and only had one or two projects underway. The economy being what it is, these jobs (in the Indianapolis area, New Jersey, and West Palm Beach) were all large. The dealers agreed that they would have rather started small with their new control system brand, but small jobs are no longer an option.
So far so good, I thought. Here were three thoughtful members of the industry (one of whom had the good taste to show me the latest issue RS tucked in his carry-on bag), who were finally willing to commit to Savant. And while none of the three were running large firms, they weren't trunkslammers either. OK, three was good, but I needed to get to the Dealer Conference to see what others had to say.
When I arrived at the opening reception, I faced two large rooms full of dealers and reps, many of whom I knew or recognized as veterans of the industry. Instead of small talk, I dove right in with the question, "Tell me what attracted you to this company." Their responses included references to Savant’s bulletproof iPhone interface, the company’s intuitive open-source programming, and the dealer’s desire to offer something that their competitors didn’t have. Several guys also mentioned the appeal of changing programming code quickly and simply, rather than rewriting lines of code. I also heard that after four years, Savant's products now seemed fully cooked and would offer a true difference in the control systems marketplace.
Later that evening I sat a table with Savant president Jim Carroll and his family. After showing me his own iPod touch interface for his home system (WiFi in our hotel wasn't cooperating... I can attest to that), he told me a funny story about his teenage daughter and a recent iPod interface demo (mind you, the poor girl was sitting two seats away during this story). Carroll told me that he was recently demonstrating the integration of his home's security cameras with Savant's iPod touch interface to a potential client when his daughter pulled up his home's driveway, in full view of one of the cameras. Unfortunately for her, she was driving her dad's car and carrying several shopping bags of goodies. Carroll immediately dialed her mobile number and said, "Hi Honey, what are you doing?" to which she replied, "As you can obviously see.... I took your car shopping." She was busted, and she knew it.
While Carroll's story was funny, he also made the more serious point to me that Savant has been gaining traction in the marketplace, because of the increasingly competitive nature of the industry. Whereas in better times, dealers rarely crossed paths in their markets, many more, he said, are bidding against one another for fewer and fewer jobs. For a dealer to be able to come in with a different story to tell and a new technology that still feels very familiar to an Apple-centric consumer, gives a Savant dealer a leg up on the competitors.
The next morning, Carroll reiterated the point to 230 dealers and 16 reps in the room (there were only two reps last year, by the way), by suggesting to that dealers not try to compare their offerings to "legacy systems," but instead present the Savant package to their clients, putting the onus on their competitors to try and match it with a legacy solution.
CEO Bob Madonna spoke next, providing a review of the company's brief history. Madonna founded a telecom switching company in 1988, which he took public in 10 years later and sold to Lucent in 1999. Since founding Savant in 2005, Madonna says the company spent its first three years focused heavily on development of its control platform, followed by more than a year of beta testing. The soft launch of the company was at CEDIA EXPO 2006, and the first end-user system was installed in 2007.
The company never, Madonna said, outsourced any of its design work to third-party developers and it has kept all of its manufacturing contained within a 30,000-square-foot facility on the Cape. It's the same facility where Madonna's former company is still located.
Savant recently opened a new training facility near where its Dealer Conference was being held, and the company has plans for a Design Center in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City and will be featured in the Boston Design Center, as well.
As a further indication of Savant's ready-for-primetime position, Madonna also pointed out that the company was in the process of overhauling its consumer collateral and website and that its engineers had been podcasting new product features to dealers as they have been developed.
Madonna then began his rundown of new products and service announcements that the company has either already released to dealers or will ship by CEDIA EXPO in September.
Savant's latest operating system release is Version 3.9. Available now at part of that release are:
- A tethered tabletop nine-inch touchpanel with full “capacitive touch” technology, delivering iPhone-like gestures and active control of lighting, shading, and other subsystems via images of the residence. Simple installation requires only power and a single Cat-5 for full functionality. This was a hot product. Honestly, it was one of the coolest demos I've ever received. The company's new Professional Services group will photograph a client's home, those pix are imported into the OSD and via programming lights can be turned off and on in a room by tapping the "virtual" fixture in the photo. The light turns on or off in the touchscreen's photo, and then it actually turns off or on in the room that you are controlling. But just as cool is program's "swipe" technology that enables an end-user to slide an image "band" across the bottom of the panel to find the room you would like to select. Think iPod touch on steroids.
- Next up is a new family of ROSIE Media Docks that are compatible with iPhone and the family of iPod media players, including the iPod touch. Docks can distribute audio, video, and control, including all metadata to any zone or Savant user interface. The dock requires two Cat-5 cables for audio use and three for audio and video use.
- Another big announcement was the new iPhone/iPod application, which is iPhone 3.0-ready and delivers ROSIE On The Road. This remote access control (the one that Jim Carroll showed me) is included with the ROSIE Home Automation Application available on the Apple App Store. It provides full access to all features and services within your home or anywhere in the world through a WiFi or 3G data connection. The application auto-discovers services in the home with Bonjour, an Apple technology that facilitates zero-configuration networking. In addition, Savant's OSD interface is included, allowing it to function as a remote to Savant's OSD.
- Also new is the latest System 12 system, called MCS-1200, which provides full functionality of System 12 without touch panel interface -- ideally paired with new high-reliability scheme (redundancy) System 12.
- Last but not least is the RSC-0007 ROSIE system controller for small installations or cost-effective upgrades. It offers six IR ports and one serial port.
That was a lot of stuff, but even more is on the horizon for CEDIA timeframe, including:
- ROSIE systems that will be fully two-way compatible with both RTI and Universal Remote Control families of remote controls.
- Panel-to-panel intercom functionality, including video doorbell features
- Desktop media dock - Desktop version of Savant's iPhone/iPod docking station
- SKYPE integration - Skype Voice over IP functionality will be available in Savant's entire line of touchpanels with an easy-to-use interface and integrated contact list
- ROSIE system 12, 24, and 36 will be equipped with redundancy, or system "back-up."
- SWIPE Themes (which will have new name by CEDIA): Again, this is very cool technology featuring capacitive glass and touchpanels that respond to touch like the iPhone. Images of residences become active control of system (touch a light in the room and it goes on/off) this available on lighting and shading to start, other systems to follow including home theater vignettes.
- New tabletop touchpanels (9-, 13-, 17-, 24-inch) and new in-wall touch panels (17- and 24-inch) that all can do “swipe” with new capacitive glass
- Full switching of HDMI 1.3-ROSIE systems full control all hardware with HDMI 1.3 capabilities with HDCP compliance.
So that's a lot to write about and a lot to process. Like I said before, the stars seem to be aligning quite well for Savant right now, even during a down economy. By aligning themselves with some of the most popular consumer electronics products on the market in recent years (iPods and iPhones) and by building products slowly and correctly instead of rushing to market half-baked, Savant could become a worthy adversary to the proven legacy brands in the CI channel. Afterall, don’t you know a brand has arrived when it can finally award dealers for their quality installations? For the first time in three Dealer Conferences, Savant handed out 10 trophies to deserving dealers. It was an impressive batch of winners and a sign that Savant finally has some roots in the ground and appears to be here to stay.