Celebrating Control4’s 10th Anniversary
Dig deep into the events leading up to any major historical milestone—from World War I to the birth of rock ’n’ roll—and you’re likely to find a tangle of root causes stretching back nearly to the dawn of civilization. Thankfully, digging into the pre-history of Control4, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, isn’t quite so tangled. It started with a spark, a chance encounter, and a shared dream.
The spark: an Apple II computer that arrived at the school of seventh-grader Eric Smith, future co-founder and principal architect of Control4, on which he learned to control the world via I/O boards and relays while everyone else was playing Oregon Trail.
The chance encounter: meeting Will West, who had left a management position at Proctor & Gamble to become co-owner of a high-end custom AV shop in Salt Lake City, and who would eventually become Control4 chairman and chief strategy officer. The shared dream: changing the way people lived by changing the way they interacted with technology.
Granted, it would take another decade, two home automation startups and a detour into the world of hotel services before West and Smith would return to the residential automation market with Control4. “To be honest, at first we were shocked by the state of the home automation market when we returned, because when we left the industry in 1997, we thought we had left a pretty good roadmap for how to make the programming easier—how to get it to a broader audience,” Smith says. “But we didn’t see anyone capitalizing on the innovations. So we thought, let’s come back to this market, but let’s look at the real issues impeding the mass acceptance of home automation. One was that automation either had to be installed during new construction or as part of a big remodeling project. The other was cost. And we thought that if we could just fix these two problems, we could broaden the market dramatically.”
Smith designed a system that not only reduced programming costs by adding an auto-generated UI to the drag-and-drop programming style, but also developed a single box that simply “did more stuff,” as he puts it.
That more unified, easier-to-program approach certainly appealed to David Welles, president of Chicago’s Tunnel Vision Technology Inc., one of the first integrators to sign up as a Control4 dealer, long before the company shipped its first product. “We needed an easier solution,” Welles says, “or what we could call a more ‘in-and-out solution.’ At the time, to install home automation you needed an expensive dedicated programmer—as well as a dedicated graphics artist for the UIs—but Control4 was much easier for computer-literate people who weren’t programmers.”
But not all dealers were so easy to convince, Smith explains. “It took getting a dealer in our training room and walking them through the process of programming a system to get them over their skepticism.”
As with any new system this complex, though, there were early technical challenges. “In the very early days, there were serious delays in response time,” recalls another early Control4 dealer, Daryl Mackie, CEO of Mackie Electronic Systems in Aspen, Colo. “When you would tap on a touchpanel to change a room, it would take what seemed like a minute. I remember on a few occasions saying to potential clients, ‘It’s coming, I promise. It’ll change rooms any second now.’”
But by the time OS 1.3 was released in 2007, most of those early kinks had been worked out. “That’s when we finally got to a level of stability that it just worked,” Smith says. “That’s when we really arrived at a level robustness, with the right product mix, where dealers could put it in and not worry about it.”
The timing also couldn’t have been more fortuitous, because not long after that the housing market began to crash, and the benefits of a retrofittable, more economical home automation system became less of a forward-looking dream and more of a marketing necessity.
“When I first became a Control4 dealer, the retrofit angle seemed like an intriguing marketing idea, but it didn’t apply to me here in the Aspen area,” Mackie says. “We had the mega-boom going here. I never had to worry about a retrofit installation. In fact, I wouldn’t even touch them. It was much easier to design, engineer, and wire a system for new construction. But when the market hit a wall, what kept our business going was the fact that Control4 was so easy to retrofit. Suddenly, no more new construction was done, period. People were enhancing their existing homes. So it’s nice that the system hit that level of reliability around that time. OS 1.3 was very good for us, and in fact I’ve got systems still running 1.3.2 even today. They’re not broken; the people are happy with what they have. It may be a small lighting system in the house, a few thermostats and a media room,” he adds, “but it’s still running all these years later, with no problems.”
Of course, those systems still running 1.3 are missing out on some of the major changes that have been made to the Control4 system in the intervening years, like OS 1.8.2, which upgraded all the system’s wireless control communications from EmberNet to the more robust and feature-packed ZigBee Pro, and OS 2.0, which amounted to a complete rewrite of the OS and a move to Flash, which allowed, for the first time, third parties like Extra Vegetables and even different teams within Control4 to write their own UI elements for the system.
For West, though, the biggest milestones in Control4’s history have been defined more by the people who have joined the team in the last decade than by OS releases. “When we started Control4,” he says, “I was the business guy, but also just technical enough to be dangerous, whereas Eric was the technical guy, with a really wonderful appreciation for the market. So we both have our strengths, but we cross over enough that it’s a wonderful, very compatible relationship, and we often will find ourselves coming up with the same ideas independently.
“But the hardest part of running a great company is bringing the right people in at the right time, and we now have an executive team that I could not be more proud of. We brought on Jim Arnold who ran sales at DirecTV, and Susan Cashen, who really helped create the TiVo brand. And of course, Martin Plaehn, who came onboard as president and CEO in 2011. Martin is an operational animal, and as I sit back and watch him run the company, I’m just in awe of his ability to execute and drive the agenda, and make things happen. He’s done a great job in getting us focused and maintaining focus. There’s a temptation to do a lot more as we get bigger, and he’s done a really wonderful job of accelerating development within our focus area, rather than letting us get distracted with things to the right and left of where we’re really headed.”
Under Plaehn’s leadership, Control4 has not only launched two new incredibly high-performance home controllers, but also added secure remote access, a panelized lighting solution that has been in the works for years, and an extensive revamp of its wireless lighting control solutions that puts Control4 on equal footing with the most advanced standalone lighting solutions on the market.
And those new products have certainly been a boon for longtime dealers. “Every three to six months, we have one or two amazing products coming out from Control4, from the Wireless Music Bridge to the new wireless lighting, to third-party products like the Yale Real Living locks,” says Tunnel Vision Technology’s Welles. “When we send out mass emails announcing those products to our Control4 clients, 25 percent of them respond almost instantly. And that’s great, because with most home automation systems, the excitement of the newness wears off after three months. If I say to our Crestron clients, ‘Hey, there’s a new product, and it’s $300, but it’s $500 to program it,’ we may get one or two responses. When I say to our Control4 clients, ‘It’s $300, and $50 to program it,’ we get a slew of responses.”
But as exciting as new product announcements are, Smith and West look forward to a day when Control4 software is even more ubiquitous in the home, no matter what hardware it runs on.
“Our goal today and for the next 10 years is really what it was from the beginning,” Smith adds. “We want to be the OS of the home. Every home.” •