Smart Home Starts with a Wink

In the 60s era show Bewitched, Samantha, the young-looking witch, could do some amazing things with just a twitch of the nose. It is getting to the point where the magic powers she displayed, are almost reality. Now, with a Wink and maybe an Echo, a mere mortal can command their home to adjust to their needs by speaking simple commands or swiping a handheld screen.

A massive remodel is a perfect opportunity to explore how to take a 1930s era house and move it into an era of what would have been science fiction not too long ago. With walls open, it should be relatively easy to lay the foundation for a connected home. The biggest challenge for this homeowner was trying to find a connected home solution that met my wants.

My wants were pretty simple:

  • Own the equipment – it’s real easy to be held hostage to a subscription service when someone else owns the equipment
  • “Do It Yourself” (both installation and ongoing monitoring) is OK, but a science project to make things work or keep them working is not desired
  • A solution that works, even if one of the pieces goes out of business or stops making products – this implies an open approach
  • A secure solution – or at least one that can be disabled if there is a security breach
  • Something that isn’t going  to cost much upfront and, as importantly, won’t cost a fortune to add smart features incrementally over time.

After months of researching, I was ready to give up when I stumbled upon the Wink HUB at a big box retailer. The Wink HUB serves as a protocol converter, allowing a complete ecosystem of disparate devices (e.g. lighting, smoke detectors, thermostats, window coverings, lighting, speakers, cameras, etc.) to connect over different RF protocols (Bluetooth, WiFi, ZWave, ZigBee).

The companion app is perhaps the biggest value, as it allows one to control different devices from a single interface; whether that interface is on a smart phone, tablet, Amazon Echo (for voice control) or via a dedicated controller called the Wink Relay Controller. One can set-up rules to allow interaction between the various devices (e.g. turn on the house lights when the garage door opens) and set schedules (e.g. turn on lights, shut blinds when it is sunset).

The Wink HUB connects to the home WiFi network via 2.4 GHz WiFi. In my testing, I found that it would  lose connection with one of my routers and I had a difficult time setting up the HUB with that particular router. Wink suggests the HUB needs to be a minimum of five feet from the router which it was. When I replaced the first router with another one, the connection between the HUB and the Internet was solid. Further, I tested the system while using the 2.4 GHz RODELink wireless audio system (connected to the camcorder used to record the above video) and did not notice interference between these devices.

Wink also suggests that the maximum distance between the HUB and devices should be 30 feet. In very limited testing, I found that I could  control two devices through wood and metal walls about 75 feet away from the HUB with no problems.

There are no subscription fees with Wink and the devices will continue to work whether or not the Wink HUB is operating (it just isn’t possible to control devices from the app). And this is a concern, as Wink had an outage last April that resulted in a costly product recall. The cause of the outage was an expired security certificate in the HUBs, so the HUBs couldn’t connect to the Wink servers. Wink emphasized that security wasn’t the issue:

“Throughout this outage, all Wink homes were completely secure and never vulnerable. In fact, the root cause of our service disruption was caused by a security measure we implemented in the early days of the program.”

That the devices had security certificates indicates encryption between the home and Wink’s server. Additionally, that these devices could no longer communicate to the server indicates it would be difficult for non-Wink devices to spoof the Wink servers. Also, there is no personal data (e.g. no credit card, address) provided to Wink, other than an email address. These things give me confidence that Wink is taking steps to secure the system .

Still, this outage points to the critical relationship between the HUB and cloud services maintained by Wink/Quirky (Quirky, the site that facilitates crowdsourced invention is Wink’s parent company). Without a subscription, what is Wink’s recurring income? My hope was that their overhead was low enough that they could generate enough income from sales of Wink HUBs, as well as commissions from their ecosystem partners that they would have a sustainable business.

Wink’s immediate future is in question as it has been reported that Wink/Quirky laid off 111 employees between July 31st and August 14th with its founder resigning August 1st.  Earlier this summer, reports suggested that they had $12M in cash on hand (after over $180M in investment between Quirky and Wink) and were looking to raise $15M. According to a September 3rd blog post, they are looking for a buyer.

The personal financial risk of going down this path is low, as a big box retailer just had a special whereby I was able to purchase the Wink HUB for only $20 (normally $50) with the purchase of two associated items (in my case, I purchased Commercial Electric LED downlights). The LED downlights are the same price as “non-connected” downlights, so it was a no-brainer to buy the connected versions.  It seems like some a software guru could create a sort of server that would emulate what Wink does with its back-end, so even if Wink doesn’t survive as an entity, perhaps a replacement for the software will rise from the ashes.1

For the sake of the people involved in the venture and who have sweated through the challenges of creating an excellent product from nothing, I hope Wink continues. My investment of time in making the Wink Hub work was relatively low, the product it supports is relatively wide and I think there will be someone who will keep Wink going no matter what happens to the corporate entity, so I am willing to take a chance with Wink.

1 For instance, perhaps the Wink back-end could be integrated with home media software, like Plex, such that home control/automation would be part of the same platform (allowing dimming of the lights when the movie starts). I could envision a “free” version whereby in-home control and monitoring would be free, while getting that same information outside the home might be for some sort of fee.