Home Automation Opinion

It’s a New Day for Insteon. Again.

The Insteon Hub, after being dead for weeks, shows signs of life
Insteon's back. What do we know about the new company, the new management, and the challenges they may face?

Recently abandoned Insteon customers who hadn’t yet unplugged their Insteon Hubs had a surprise earlier this week. The status light on their Insteon Hubs that had glowed red for the past seven weeks suddenly turned green. Insteon’s servers were back on. But for how long? The last thing anyone knew was that Smartlabs and Insteon were basically being sold for parts.

Hardcore users and enthusiasts may have noticed Universal Devices’ CEO Michel Kohanim was trying to acquire at least part of Insteon. And with good reason. One of the key products that his company’s Insteon control system depends on—an interface known as a PLM—hasn’t been available for months. But we learned last month that his company’s bid fell through. And now we know why.

Another New Guard

Insteon is under new management. Again. Today Ken Fairbanks announced publicly that he is heading up a “group of passionate Insteon users that acquired Insteon” with the intent of “responsibly rebuilding the Insteon business.” Bloggers and influencers took that statement and ran with it, announcing that Insteon customers had brought the company back to life. Yeah…maybe technically true, but it’s a little more nuanced than that.

Ken Fairbanks used to work at Smartlabs when the company launched Insteon. As a former VP from Smartlabs, he’s not a stranger to Insteon, and he’s not an outsider. And that, I believe, should give Insteon customers some hope.

This Is Personal

I avoid writing with a personal voice at the DMZ. But this is personal to me. I’ve been a Smartlabs customer for over 20 years. I purchased and started using Insteon products from their initial launch in 2005. I’ve tested beta products. In 2012, I started working with some developers that were building a third-party mobile app for Insteon called Homeboy. As a third-party developer and a blogger, I came to know and respect multiple Smartlabs employees. In 2019, I visited Smartlabs’ headquarters, meeting with product and executive team members, and later that year I finally met the then new(-ish) CEO, Rob Lilleness.

I’m a technology consultant by trade, and late in 2019, I started occasionally consulting for Smartlabs. While working with Smartlabs, I stopped writing about Insteon here. I wrote a few of their blog posts (including the early-COVID “We’re Keeping the Lights on” headline that quickly became a punchline for Insteon’s shutdown this Spring). In 2021, I worked with Smartlabs on the Nokia Smart Lighting product line that never made it to market.

This is very personal to me.

What We Don’t Know

Folks who feel like they’ve heard this all before have reason to feel skeptical. Rob Lilleness so believed in Insteon that he personally invested and took the helm only to end up in such a precarious position pre-COVID that the company ultimately couldn’t weather the storm. It was a new day then, too.

At this point, what’s in store for Insteon customers is anybody’s guess. We don’t know more than we know. We don’t know whether Insteon is on life support or has a renewed life.

We don’t know what the future will look like. Will the new company try to source new Insteon stock, which has been dwindling for literally years now? Will they innovate and evolve the line? Will they keep Insteon’s cloud services—the ones that shut down without notice—available to customers for free or will this start to look like Wink’s last, desperate attempt to stay alive?

And what will become of Nokia Smart Lighting? Could Fairbanks’ team somehow revive the licensing deal for Smartlabs’ next-generation smart home product line? Having worked on that project with Smartlabs, I was personally excited about it. I was hoping to outfit my new home with it. Is there reason to believe that might be possible now?

What We Do

What I do know is that Insteon Technologies, LLC, the cleverly-named, new company that acquired the Insteon…technologies…has a long, uphill road ahead. Many customers are angry, and the new steward of Insteon’s brand won’t be shielded from that anger. Many (most?) customers have left, and it’s unlikely they’ll come back. And Smartlabs’ unprecedented, disgraceful collapse and abandonment of its customers left a dark spot on the smart home industry as a whole.

And with the Matter standard just around the corner, are consumers really going to take an aging, but powerful, proprietary platform seriously now? I imagine we’ll know soon enough.

I want to believe. I want to be optimistic. But I worry it may be too late.

UPDATE: CEO Ken Fairbanks has notified customers that they’ll be introducing an annual subscription service to use the Insteon Hub services. It will run ≈$40/yr or ≈$70 for 2 years. More information is expected next week.

Author

  • It's a New Day for Insteon. Again.

    Richard is a product experience consultant with a life-long interest in consumer electronics. He has been immersed in smart home tech for decades now and hosts The DMZ's home automation podcast, Home: On and co-hosts Entertainment 2.0 with Josh Pollard. Richard looks at products through an experience lens, always seeking the right mix of utility and delight.

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About the author

Richard Gunther

Richard is a product experience consultant with a life-long interest in consumer electronics. He has been immersed in smart home tech for decades now and hosts The DMZ's home automation podcast, Home: On and co-hosts Entertainment 2.0 with Josh Pollard. Richard looks at products through an experience lens, always seeking the right mix of utility and delight.