"Open is always going to win," states Ed Hemphill, CEO of WigWag, a company that hopes to make sense of the ever-expanding and ever-more-complex Internet of Things market.
WigWag is named after the traditional flags used by the US military's Signal Corps to communicate messages. Hemphill and his cofounder Travis McCollum both served in the Signal Corps before starting up their company in Austin, Texas.
Unlike their main competitors – SmartThings, owned by Samsung, and Wink – WigWag plans to use the power of open source software and the broader technical community to create the solution that more and more people are asking for: a way to make the disparate world of smart-home products function together.
"Open source is ultimately more flexible," Hemphill notes, "and since it's completely exposed, it is far more likely that bugs will be found."
Like so many other IoT companies, WigWag has its own "smart" lightbulb and room sensor – covering everything from motion and noise to temperature and humidity – but its real focus is on its gateway hub. Its goal is both simple and complex: create a way for people to easily control multiple different products.
To do so, it has several different components in its $149 relay that work with the main IoT standards: one covering Z-Wave; one covering ZigBee; another that will work with Bluetooth LTE. It is working on full support for Google's Thread protocol and will add Wi-Fi later this year. In short, anything that is out there, it will try to work with.
It is a system that is desperately needed. The IoT market is so diverse, with every product seemingly requiring its own app (and sometimes its own hub), that it has actually started to hold the market back. What's worse is that consumers' number one concern – security – suffers. Most products use and store your home Wi-Fi as a way of communicating, but sloppy security has repeatedly made those authentication details accessible, opening up your entire home's system to attack.
Hemphill sees the problem as an opportunity. "The assumption has always been that everything outbound is fine, and you just need to protect from stuff coming in," he notes, "but that's just not the case any more."
Until very recently, everything on your network was pretty simple – a laptop, a PC, a mobile phone – but now with people adding new products, many of which are running software that could be years out of date, the problem could be inside the network.
"People are adding weird stuff now," he notes. "That new product you buy might be running Linux 2.8 [we're on 4.8]. The SDK could be five years old."
Hemphill is all too aware of this problem: in the US Signal Corps, by the time technology worked its way down to the troops – through the bureaucracy and multitude of defense companies that all wanted to take their cut – it was already out of date. "It's a long time ago, but I can remember Windows XP coming out and being given new gear running NT4." That's 2001 and 1996 to save you wracking your brains.
Not that WigWag's product has the solution to the problem. At least not yet. The company is working on a firewall within its product that will give you greater control over what your smart-home products actually do.
Hemphill gives two examples. If you have a Belkin product, for example, you want to make sure it is only communicating with Belkin's cloud service. Anything else and something unusual may be happening.
Equally, if you have, say, a webcam in your bedroom. You don't want it to be on all the time – particularly when you are in the room at night. But as things currently stand, the company you bought the camera from has a surprising degree of control over that. No one is going to physically turn off a camera every night, but a gateway could electronically shut it off on a time schedule you decide upon. "You want to be able to turn if off, and say 'I own the LAN'," he argues, "and that includes it not talking to the mothership."
The only way to do this, Hemphill argues, is through open source software.
By being open source, not only do the security problems get smaller – because of all the eyeballs on it – but the ability to work with new products grows. What's more, the approach can keep old products alive. When Nest/Google killed the Revolv hub, people rightly freaked out. What is less known is the decision by TCP to end support for its lightbulb hub. Hemphill says that WigWag has effectively brought that hub back to life by allowing the bulbs to continue to communicate.
The beauty of open source also means that the code can be included wherever it needs to be: in the product, in the cloud, in your router. The idea is to provide a solution that enables different products to function together, while also providing a degree of essential security.
So where does WigWag make its money? It has patents on the next level up – syncing – and, it hopes, a leg-up in the world of properly functioning hubs. It is putting its money on the fact that when it comes to complexity, open is the way to go. "Open has always, always worked better," says Hemphill. ®