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Making the Home Smarter, One App at a Time: a Q&A with TheDriversLab CEO Liran Machlouf

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I had the chance to sit down this week and chat with Liran Machlouf, CEO of TheDriversLab, a relatively young company that has already made pretty big waves in the world of home automation with its custom drivers and apps designed for the Control4 ecosystem. I first discovered TheDriversLab when I was search for a driver to integrate the control of the ecobee Smart Thermostat into my own Control4 system. Because much like a computer, you can’t just plug any old device into a home automation system and expect it to work. It requires drivers. And just like Microsoft does for Windows, Control4 develops an incredible amount of first-party drivers, so that the most popular electronics will work with its control system out of the box.

But, of course, the electronics industry is one of the most rapidly changing markets, and no one company can keep up with every single electronic device released in a given year. That’s where companies like TheDriversLab come in.

As I quickly discovered, though, developing Control4 drivers for products like ecobee, Philips Hue, and Belkin WeMo is just one small part of what the company does. Far more interesting, I think, are its custom solutions like Home Notify, which adds sophisticated geolocation control capabilities to the Control4 system. So, for example, with Home Notify running, you don’t even have to press a button to put your home in Away Mode. It can sense that you’ve left the house and automatically turn off lights, close shades, dial back the settings on your thermostat, etc.

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Since it was the company’s first offering, I thought it would be a good place to start in our conversation.

Dennis Burger, Home Notify seems like a pretty ambitious undertaking. Why did you start there, with the development of this huge piece of software that fundamentally changes the homeowner’s interaction with their Control4 system?

Liran Machlouf, CEO of TheDriversLab: You know, this is a very small market—one that’s very hard to enter. If the dealers who install these products don’t know you, they’re not very trusting of your offerings. And even Control4 is very selective about who they let in to develop products for the platform. So when we decided to enter this market, we knew we had to develop a product that nobody had, and that people really wanted.

And it paid off. Home Notify got everyone’s attention. In addition to giving you all of these nice notifications based on what’s happening around the house, it also allows you to program custom events based on geolocation. And for many people, that was the missing piece of the Control4 puzzle. Once we launched it successfully, people started talking about us. It helped establish our credibility. And after that, companies like ecobee came to us to develop Control4 drivers for their products.

Dennis Burger: Why was Home Notify specifically developed for Control4?

Liran Machlouf: When my business partner, Ran Grushkowsky, and I decided to get into this business, we liked Control4 the most as a potential platform because they were the most affordable of the major home automation companies. They have the lowest entry point, which is something I like, because I think home automation is something that everyone should have. Automation started off as a luxury, like the iPhone was when it first came out.

Think about that: when the iPhone first came out, everyone was using flip phones and the iPhone was on a different level. Not everyone was quick to adopt it. These days, though, if you took away the average person’s smartphone, they would be missing something substantial. Smartphones make us more efficient, and they become a really big part of our lives. Take away someone’s smartphone and they don’t know what to do with themselves anymore.

And with home automation it’s the same way. It started off as lighting control and similar things like that, but these days you get into products that can really add numerous benefits—including safety—to people’s homes. And so I think it’s something that everyone should have.

And I think Control4 is the most likely company to make that happen. They have an amazing platform, they already have an amazing selection of first-party drivers for connecting different gadgets and components to the system. And that’s why we chose them.

Dennis Burger: There are, of course, a number of companies developing third-party drivers and apps for Control4 and other automation platforms. Extra Vegetables comes to mind. HouseLogix is another big one. How did you find your niche amongst those other companies?

Liran Machlouf: Well, as I said, this is a really a small industry, relatively speaking. Companies like Blackwire, Extra Vegetables, HouseLogix, and a few others are already doing amazing work. When we came in, we were the underdog. Extra Vegetables has been around forever. Everyone knows them, and that’s where dealers go first for third-party drivers. But we look at all of these companies not as competitors, but as people who are helping to grow an industry we love.

There are so many apps and drivers that need to be developed that no one company can do all of it. Not even Control4. And if people can’t access drivers to control the devices they want to control, they’re not going to buy into home automation as a whole. So I think anyone who’s developing drivers for these systems is helping build the industry. The way I look at it is, we’re really working together to make Control4 the best possible control platform.

As you may know, we recently formed a partnership with HouseLogix. They came to us, actually. They have the same outlook that we do. So by listing their apps on our site and our apps on their site, people are exposed to more apps and drivers, and they learn more about what you can do with the Control4 system.

Dennis Burger: So you’re ultimately getting the message out to more homeowners.

Liran Machlouf: Well, right now we don’t really have much contact with end-users. We provide a service to the dealers and installers. But we’re actually hoping to be able to reach out more to homeowners and say, “This is what’s possible.”

We’re working on a large scale platform called Homeation, which I can’t talk too much about, but the intention is for it to be a central hub for everyone interested in home control. It will be one place where end-users, dealers, developers, and manufacturers will have a presence. Homeowners will be able to browse for ideas, call their dealer, and the dealer will be able to remotely install apps and drivers from there—we hope it will be a game-changer.

Dennis Burger: You mentioned the analogy of home automation being like smartphones, which raises an interesting question. You know, as Apple continues to release new operating systems each year, they often integrate features that used to be thirty-party apps. And much like Apple, Control4 is constantly releasing new OS updates that add features and functionality. Something like geolocation capabilities seems like a logical addition for the company. What would it mean for your company if Control4 incorporated something like Home Notify into its standard platform?

Liran Machlouf: I think that would be great. Think about it: that’s someone saying, “We think what you’re doing is so great, we want to make it a permanent part of our larger platform.” If it comes to that, we’ll move on and develop other things. There are a lot of apps that need to be developed, and there are a lot of things we’re doing to change the market and push the industry forward. Home Notify is great, I love it, it changes the way you interact with your Control4 system. But there’s a lot of other stuff we could do.

Dennis Burger: What other things are you working on?

Liran Machlouf: What I really want to do is develop more applications that help people save energy and conserve water. Here in California we have a huge issue with drought. We just finished developing an irrigation control system driver, because everyone here in California has irrigation control, but the problem is, most of the time it’s just a timer. If it’s raining, your irrigation system still turns on. If you’re having a party in the bakcyard, it still turns on. And most people just unplug the thing at times like that because they don’t know how to turn it off or adjust the settings.

So, for me, it’s really important to make a product like that act more intelligently, and integrate it into the larger home control system, to make it easier to use, to make it intuitive. We waste so much water, especially here in California. You see streams of water running down the street because people are over-watering. But this new app we’ve developed really simplifies control of the system, so people will actually use it the way it’s intended to be used.

Dennis Burger: I notice you also have an app called Earthquake Alert.

Liran Machlouf: Yeah, we in California like to be alerted when there’s an earthquake around us. But I think Earthquake Alert is just the beginning. What I want to see is a system that could turn things off when there’s an earthquake—not just electronics, but broken water lines, broken gas lines. I’d love to see sensors that could do that sort of thing more intelligently. And more importantly, allow the homeowner to restore water and gas easily once the danger has passed. So Earthquake Alert could serve as a foundation for those sorts of automated events, but for now it’s just cool to be able to receive notifications about magnitude and location. It’s a starting point.

And, you know, as earthquake detection advances—there are people saying they’ll be able to give you, like, a thirty-second heads-up an earthquake is about to happen—we’ll be able to plug that information into Earthquake Alert and bring that information into the home control system. So you could program the lights, for example, to flash before there’s an earthquake to let you know to prepare for it.

At your own home in Alabama, imagine being able to do the same for tornados. Think of how beneficial that would be—to have your home notify you when there’s a tornado heading your way. If a system like that could save just one life, it would be worth it.