The next Nest? We talk to Ring, the doorbell-come-security system
CEO Jamie Siminoff welcomes The Reg to his Santa Monica HQ
"You've come here at the absolute worst time," Jamie Siminoff tells us as we enter Ring's headquarters in Santa Monica.
On the left are three people unpacking boxes of the company's video doorbell, scanning their MAC addresses as fast as possible, and packing them back up individually to send to customers. The boxes stretch back all the way to where the company's customer service team sit.
"Orders jumped three times this month on last month," Siminoff explains with a mix of happiness and exhaustion. Not only that but the conference room is undergoing a refit, so staff members have to squash themselves into small side rooms for their meetings.
"When we originally got this building, it was way too big for us so we let out the front to these guys who make mescal - it's actually really good - but I had to tell them recently that we need to take over the whole building."
Ring is enjoying that classic moment in a company's lifecycle when word has started getting out and orders are coming in at a rate that requires scaling up to the next level. And for good reason too. By all accounts, Ring the video doorbell is an impressive product, successfully navigating the path between hardware, software, smart phones and cloud services to deliver a genuinely innovative product with a real use-case.
At $199 it isn't cheap, but Jamie make a convincing case for why. "We wanted to produce a high-quality product rather than nickel-and-dime our customers. As we move forward, we should be able to find ways to save some cents here and some money there on components, but we had to start out the gate with a quality, reliable product.
"The hardware business is very hard. You have to get a lot of things right – and people expect this [he holds out his iPhone 6] – right away."
The price point is understandable when you consider what the Ring can do: it has an HD camera, motion sensors, microphone and speaker and works as both a security camera and high-end entry videophone.
It's battery powered, not very big, and installs easily on your doorframe with a couple of screws. Similar systems until recently would have cost many times the Ring's price and probably required you hiring someone to install it for you.
If someone presses the Ring's button – or if there is a motion in front of it (you can tweak the motion settings) – a notification goes through to your phone through the related iOS and Android app and you see through the wide-angle lens as well as hear and speak to the person at the other end.
In essence, for $200, you get a security system on your front door. And it runs off the tiny current that your existing doorbell uses, or on battery power – lasting a full year with normal use. For a small monthly fee, all the footage from the Ring will be stored in the cloud for later use or download.
Taken together it's a compelling package and the big box stores have taken note: as we walk past one of the jammed offices at Ring headquarters, one staff member is holding a mock-up of the cardboard display that will be used to show off the device in Bed, Bath & Beyond.
And that's why Ring is becoming somewhat of a poster boy for the new wave of smart-tech devices. The next Nest. A product that gets off the pages of Techcrunch and into the homes of ordinary people.
Needless to say, it's not all been smooth sailing.
There is a large poster leaning up against the wall showing the various iterations of the Ring's previous incarnation: the Doorbot. The poster also features a map with pictures of the Doorbot sent in from users all over the world.
While the Ring is slick, like a chunky iPhone, the Doorbot looks a little like its deformed cousin – one big beady eye and a curved front that makes you feel it is staring at you. Aside from its name - which Jamie diplomatically describes as "not very global" – the Doorbot didn't have the more modern features that make the Ring worth getting, most notably motion detection.
It also had a few teething troubles, giving the company a sharp lesson in customer service. "We still have people who just hate the Doorbot and will appear everywhere writing comments about it because they had a product that didn't work properly for a few days," Siminoff says with a hint of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Then there were the manufacturing issues for this latest iteration, the Ring: a whole batch of plastic, specially designed to protect the motion sensor but allow through heat information, was mixed wrong and proved useless. There were countless tweaks and variations and tests.
"And then we had a moment where I really thought we were screwed," Siminoff says, relaying what happened when the first production models arrived at the office from their manufacturer in China. The staff were confused and then horrified to discover that the camera was completely bleached out and so the product was effectively junk.
"If you look closely at the camera," he says pointing at the center of a fresh-out-the-box model, "there is a slight ridge running around it."
The team had quickly identified the problem was a reflection into the lens from another small part of the device. To fix it would require an overhaul of the design and possibly scrapping the units that were being produced as rapidly as possible on the other side of the world.
But again thanks to a 3D printer Ring was able to prototype ten versions of a possible fix and test them out on the finished model. The ridge is a small circular piece of the same plastic simply stuck on to the front of the camera. You wouldn't notice it unless it was pointed out to you but it turned the unit from a useless hunk of metal to a fully functional door-phone.
"I think everyone who gets into this business has a number of 'we are completely screwed' moments," Siminoff says.
The nature of the internet of things
It is hard to make a good product. Especially one that hopes to ride on the back of the latest technological advances: wireless, cloud, smartphone apps, the internet of things.
Siminoff ended up doing what other successful smart-tech companies have had to: get specialists in a number of different fields in-house. "We have hired people to deal with each part of the product: hardware, firmware, software, cloud. You have to have people that can do every part of it - and have them in-house. You can't hire consultants for this, you need people working on it internally, get into it, have a passion for the product."
And there were countless issues to resolve and design considerations to account for. Much like the Nest, the product has to be able to fit into the existing home. When people buy the Nest, they pull off their old thermostat and put it in its place. The same is true for the Ring - very few people will be adding a doorbell for the first time.
That means it has to work – and work well – using a battery. Siminoff tells us it's about 50-50 people that have doorbell wires with very low voltage and people using a battery powered doorbell.
What Ring is trying to do is expand that simple circuit-break button of a doorbell into a 21st century video and audio security system. Motion detectors, HD video, microphone and speaker, WiFi chip - you can't run that off a single AA battery.
Siminoff shares the philosophy of most companies now working in this field: your product needs to work both independently and with other products; both online and offline.
So the Ring both makes its own sound (it's a doorbell after all) and it can connect to your existing doorbell system. But its unique selling point is the fact that it instantly pings your phone and let's you not only see but also speak to whoever is at your front door.
As if my magic, Jamie's phone goes off just while we're discussing how this all works in reality. It's a guy at his home several miles away. "Yes?" he asks. "Just wondering if you have any dry cleaning to pick up?" "No, not today thanks." "Ok, thanks."
And here's the thing: the guy at the other end had no idea that the owner was miles away. And, thanks to the internet, could have been on the other side of the county, even the other side of the world. All you need is an internet connection.
It is this aspect that gets people's eyes sparkling when they start talking about smart-tech. The fact that you are able to be present at your house while not physically there. The Nest lets you turn up the heat before you get home, or turn it off on leaving to save money. Webcams let you see how your dog is, or what the babysitter is up to, or even see if there is someone breaking into your house, whether you're at work or on vacation.
And the future?
What Ring has yet to figure out – and even the well-resourced Nest has only started working on – is the next step. How to get to the Jetsons future when one interaction can spark a series of other useful interactions.
The most obvious connection for Ring is to connect it to a doorlock. Someone rings your doorbell, you see them and hit a button to let them into your house. This already exists with more of the traditional video security systems.
With motion detection in the Ring, you may also want to turn on the lights. Security lighting. Those are the existing uses but there are a whole host of other possibilities that smart-tech devices are starting to make possible and Siminoff has a number of those products on his desk that he and his team are playing around with. That's version 2.0 and the future.
"I think "if this then that" (IFTTT) is going to be a good business," he tells us, talking about the San Francisco based company that is planning to become the standard for smart-tech and internet-of-things products to talk to one another.
The other area where Siminoff is joining an increasing brigade of smart-tech manufacturers is in the idea of products being standalone - not requiring their own dedicated Ethernet connection, or router or base station.
Traditional companies looking into the internet of things as a new market opportunity have typically over-engineered, because they can - everything gets its own base, power supply and uses wireless to connect its system together.
However this approach not only requires dedicating increasingly large amounts of space but will also very quickly eat up people's available router ports. When the next product comes with the requirement to buy and wire up an Ethernet switch, you start creating barriers. And when those products need to be connected internally to other products, the complexity can quickly become overwhelming.
Ring's connections will go through the cloud – up to Ring's servers, an authenticated hand-off and then back down to other devices. This approach however introduce its own issues - what about WiFi coverage? What about when the internet connection goes down? These are the topics that the tight band of smart-tech developers are working on next.
But back to the Ring: there are of course improvements and tweaks to be made. Siminoff is unhappy about the Ring's software. It does what it needs to but "people should be able to send videos rather than have a list and download them," he says unhappily. "We're working on that."
There are other tweaks needed – ranging from how the device pings your phone to how the video is relayed and at which bit rates. And then there are always improvements to be made to the firmware, each time making the machine a little more efficient, a little less energy consuming.
"It's great when I had friends who call up and say 'it's amazing how much better it suddenly is' when we've sent out a firmware update.". And it is that drive on improvement which should keep the Ring moving along its current trajectory and growing popularity.
The ring is not the iPhone 6 yet but it is starting to look like the iPhone 3GS – and remember how terrific that was the first time you fired it up.
The Ring costs $199 and comes in a range of four colors. You can buy it online at Ring.com. A full review will be posted tomorrow.