Today you can turn on your living room lights with your iPhone. You can unlock your Zipcar with an easy-to-use app. Program your DVR from the other side of the planet. Turn on your sprinklers with a tablet.
You don't need to spend a fortune on a fancy web-enabled appliance to use it. Instead, you just need an appliance with an Electric Imp slot so you can insert a tiny card that connects your stuff to the web. (Those slots are relatively cheap for manufacturers to add, so consumers won't have to pay a premium.)
From there, your hardware is yours to control from any computer or mobile device.
Hugo Fiennes is Electric Imp's CEO and co-founder. As the hardware boss for Apple's first four iPhones, he knows a thing or two about innovation. And it shows in everything from Electric Imp's hardware designs to its overall philosophy that it should be super easy to connect anything to the Web.
We recently spoke to Fiennes over Skype for a rundown on Electric Imp and a demo of the service. He told us what kind of devices we can expect running Electric Imp later this year, how they'll work, and how his time working on the iPhone helped the project along the way.
Business Insider: Let's start from the beginning. Explain what Electric Imp is and how it works.
Hugo Fiennes: Electric Imp is two things. It's a service whose purpose is to connect devices to each other and to the Internet. But in order to make the experience really good—almost Apple-like—we made this little card, which is the physical manifestation of the cloud.
So basically the goal is to connect everything—that's kind of our tagline.
All the card knows is how to get on your WiFi. To use your account, you plug it into any device. The instant it's plugged in, the ID device asks the server what am I in, what software do I need? And then always the latest software to run that device comes down from the cloud, and is run in the little virtual machine inside.
So for manufacturers, it's great. With this, you just plug it in and you always get the latest firmware. They can upgrade all their customers just by editing the code and pushing to all their users. It's a really, really elegant solution to the problem. So that's pretty much the way we see it. We see it actually for consumers to get involved in this, it has to be incredibly simple, it has to give them real value, you know, fix a problem they have, and be a minimal investment to start with.
BI: How do you counter companies like Samsung that already have "smart" appliances?
HF: The thing is, you then have to buy everything from Samsung. I mean, customers don't really want that. That's the other thing we do. We provide this middle ground where you can tie different types of devices and different vendors together on this one plane. And we see that as a pretty important thing. Not all vendors will like it—especially the first-tier ones won't.
BI:You probably can't say the vendors your working with, but can you tell us what kind of devices we'll see running Electric Imp when it launches?
HF: We have several coffee machine makers, lighting companies, thermostat-type things, audio companies, education-related stuff...
BI:What kind of education stuff?
HF: Education toys, for example. This is actually great for toys, because toys are always looking for ways to add more value without making them more expensive.
And you can imagine it's very little cost to put the card slot in. It can be as little as 75 cents to put a card slot into a device. Then you can have behaviors like Teddy bears that can be paired. You can talk into one and it can come out the other one. You can do all types of things where friends can have a pair of something, and you can separate them as long as they're both on Wi-Fi.
BI: What else?
There are also several industrial uses. People who need data collection. You get things like people who monitor their refrigerator temperatures in stores and they want to have the data logged. Currently, the devices they have are very expensive because they're purpose-built Wi-Fi temperature-loggers, whereas with this, this part is really cheap, and actually the temperature-logger part is also really cheap. Because the people making that don't need to know about WiFi and network.
BI:What about the average person who has a house full of appliances without an Electric Imp slot? What do they do?
HF: It can be incremental. We're not expecting people to replace everything. We don't really see ourselves as automation managers. "Internet of things" is a better summary of where we are because I think home automation is a small subset, and home automation to most people means remote light switches that often don't work.
So there's a Utopian vision where you come home and the lights are on and one button can turn everything off and this type of thing. And I think a lot of people don't fancy that investment and go, "I can turn the lights on and off myself." But there's usually one thing that's important to them, which they'd like to have monitored or notified about.
One of our employees has rabbits. We took our plant water sensor and we put it in the rabbit's water bottle, and it will text her when her rabbit's running low on water. To her, that's actually more important than turning the lights on and off. And we have point solutions which you can now make.
BI: So the platform doesn't matter? It'll work on anything?
HF: If you think of what the Apple App Store did to differentiate big software vendors and one person in their bedroom, you know, it made it for a level playing field, and everyone had the same visibility. And the customer had the same experience downloading the app and buying the app—everything was the same. This is almost like that, for network-connected goods. Anyone can make the device, and when you plug the card in, you have the same experience. You don't have to think, "I've never heard of this vendor, their stuff is just not going to work, this is just going to be a bad experience." You just have all of that sorted out for you.
BI:Coming from Apple, how did your experience making the iPhone and things like that inform this project?
HF: I learned stuff about details and about how simple stuff has to be for consumers to really like it. It's just little things, like on the iPhone team we used to have weekly meetings with Jony [Ive] and stuff, and it was incredible.
I had my Jony Ive moment recently. It's very, very small, but it had to do with the plastic molding on the Electric Imp card. There's no seam on the back, which is actually a real pain to do, and the people I was working with at the Taiwanese vendor couldn't understand why I didn't just want to do it the easiest way. So my Jony Ive moment was making sure the seams wouldn't be visible when it's installed in a slot. It's quite interesting because it was the things you had to go through—the extra pain—it's not the fun things on the product, but it actually does make a difference.
BI:What about the manufacturing process?
I think that working at Apple, I learned a lot about manufacturing. I spent a lot of time at the factory at Apple. But it's Apple's way of thinking. And you can see that in companies like Nest. It's an approach to product development where it's very user-centric. There were some freedoms that Apple gave which are hard to replicate in the startup environment. Like cost was pretty much never an object with anything in engineering. It was like, "What's best? OK, implement what's best." Because it shows when you cut corners.
Apple is a very special place to be, and it was amazing being there, you know I was there for the first four iPhones. But it was incredible. For me personally, it got less interesting as it got bigger and bigger.
BI:Why do you say less interesting? What do you mean?
HF: I didn't lose interest, when I say it got less interesting. I think because of the fact that it was—there's almost nothing that's made in iPhone quantities. The iPhone is one model, and everything has to be identical across 100 million devices, and pretty much no one makes 100 million of anything. Samsung makes a lot of phones, but there's not one model. And we were trying to make something which is indistinguishable. The first unit has to be indistinguishable from the 100 millionth unit. It's still an amazing place to work, but it's just, for me, after four phones, I think I got phones out my system.
BI: Could you give us an idea of availability and things like that. We know developers are going to be able to get their hands on it soon.
HF: We're aiming to get the initial dev kits out by the end of June. But we'll see the first consumer products out by the end of the year. So it's not really consumer until then. We're doing a lot more work on the user interface, simplifying stuff and phone apps and so on.
Here's the Electric Imp card. It works with any device that has a card slot.
Manufacturers can put the Electric Imp slot in just about anything. And it's relatively cheap to do so. Once the slot is installed, Electric Imp handles the rest.
Here's a mouse trap powered by Electric Imp. It can be programmed to alert you with a text message when it catches a mouse.