Wink Home Automation: Not There Yet

Happy New Year! 2014 was a big year for home automation products. It seems like pretty much everything is suddenly “smart”. You’ve got smart watchesSmart thermostats. Even the pinnacle of silliness: a smart egg tray, which pings your smartphone when you are nearly out of eggs (manufactured by GE, nonetheless).

What was the real winner in 2014, though? Apps!

Several companies have come out with smartphone apps–often with accompanying physical hubs–which are designed to integrate all your various smart stuff together. These hubs and apps make a lot of sense. With the tremendous growth in the diy home automation market, the proliferation of different standards, wireless transmission technologies, and APIs has gotten kind of ridiculous. You used to just have X10 and Insteon. Now you have to contend with Zigbee, Wifi, Bluetooth, ANT+ and whatever the hell else the latest group of home automation startups think up.

Hubs and apps promise to make this insane sprawl of standards more usable by communicating with all your devices, consolidating the data and signals from them, and displaying everything in one slick (usually phone or tablet) interface. Revolv originated the idea, but there are at least 5 companies which are now doing the same thing.

The hubs are pretty similar; you basically stick a bazillion different radios, chips and other sending/receiving technologies into an antenna-studded plastic sphere of some kind, have users install it in their home and connect it to the Internet, and then feed the data into your app.

The app is where things get interesting. Most hub and app companies let you use the app to perform basic functions for all your devices, but also to create more complex behaviors by connecting different smart items together. Want to turn the lights on via Hue when someone taps in the correct code on your Wifi-connected front door lock? To recycle a cliche, there’s an app for that.

Since I think the smartphone app and hub system is the way the diy home automation world is moving (and rightfully so; I’d rather have a profusion of different home automation standards than be locked into X10 or Insteon like in the dark old days), I’m going to start looking at some of these app and hub systems in more detail.

I’ll get started with an easy one; Wink. Wink offers a hub for about $40, with an accompanying app. You can connect a variety of home automation devices to the hub, and then control them from within the app. Wink has been advertising heavily on social media and streaming television services, so you may have seen one of their commercials, which involve robots.

Why is Wink easy to review? It doesn’t work.

To start out testing, I downloaded the Wink app on my Android phone (Galaxy S5). The installation process was painless, and the interface was slick and easy to navigate. Since I didn’t have a Wink hub yet, my first test was to connect the app to my Phillips Hue hub (Wink hubs aren’t required for Hue, as the Wink app can talk to the Hue hub directly). Pairing with the hub was easy; you just press the Hue button, and Wink connects right up.

Next, I hit a button to control the lights, and…nothing. A few seconds later, the light turned on. I kept experimenting, and this inconsistent operation was very…consistent. Sometimes pressing a button in the Wink app would have no effect. Sometimes the light would come on immediately. Sometimes it would come on, but the graphic in the Wink app wouldn’t update, and it would still appear to be off. All the advanced functionality (what Wink calls “robots”) failed entirely.

Am I just dumb or incompetent? I don’t think so. The top two comments on the Wink hub at Amazon are titled “Not ready for primetime at launch” and “Does not work :(“. The comments on the app in the Android store express a similar sentiment.

Wink has a very slick interface (and clearly a good PR firm), but they’ve gotten a bit ahead of themselves. My advice to their team is to focus a bit more on product before you start running expensive TV spots. I know how this game is played (I’ve read the Lean Startup), so I’ll be first in line to give Wink a second try when they work out the kinks. But other users probably won’t be as forgiving.

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