Ecobee CEO on the Future of the Connected Home

ecobee unveiled its latest generation smart-home thermostat this week at the Collision Conference in New Orleans. This version is the first to arrive with Amazon’s Alexa functionality integrated directly into the device. A built-in microphone allows ecobee4 to offer all 12,000 of Alexa’s voice-enabled skills. Is it the best smart thermostat on the market today?

Essentially, the new ecobee – the ecobee4 –  gives you an Echo Dot and a smart thermostat in a single, wall-mounted device. You’ll not only be able to control your home’s climate via voice, but you can also fetch a recipe, hear the news, or check sports scores. ecobee is also introducing later this year smart light switches that work with its thermostat and Alexa.

Priced at $249 and arriving in stores this past May 15th, the ecobee offers a compelling alternative to the similarly priced Nest thermostat. It’s also a signal that the trend of third-party device makers integrating Alexa’s functionality into their offerings will only grow from here.

To hear more about where the voice-enabled smart home is headed, we caught up with ecobee founder and CEO Stuart Lombard on the convention floor at Collision. What follows is an edited interview:

ecobee Founder
ecobee founder and CEO Stuart Lombard

Gadget Review: So, going back to the beginning of when you started the company, what was the spark that made you think, “I really need to do this.” Because you were not involved in tech hardware before, right?

Lombard: Our mission was: How can we help people conserve energy, save money, and reduce their environmental footprint using technology? And the insight that we had was heating and cooling is such a big part of your energy use, but it is also the easiest thing to control. And so, why not make thermostats easier to use and smarter, and connect them to your smartphone like everything else in your life?

That was really the impetus for starting the company. But we’re morphing a little bit; we’re also thinking about how to make your life simpler and better. We want to remove some of the frictions in your life, so you can focus on your family, your friends, and the moments you share in your home. And just make your home this peaceful environment — because life is chaotic, right?

Gadget Review: Right. So, the ecobee sells for $249?

Lombard: That’s right.

Gadget Review: And how fast do you make back your money?

Lombard: We estimate the average customer saves about 23% on their heating and cooling costs. You’re saving somewhere between $150 and $180 a year. So it pays for itself in about a year, or a year and a half, depending on how you use it.

Gadget Review: That’s a great value proposition for the consumer. So, why don’t more people have these things in their homes?

Lombard: About 40% of the market for thermostats will be WiFi-connected this year. That’s up from around zero about five years ago. People are buying them now because they’re thinking, “Why wouldn’t I? Everything else is on my smartphone.”

When we started, people thought, “I don’t know if I need that.” But now, these smart thermostats are selling much better than the cheap $59 thermostat that’s not Internet-connected, that’s as dumb as a doorknob.

Gadget Review: What does the future look like for smart homes?

Lombard: I think we’re creating a new platform in the home. And if you look at the way people interact with those Internet services that they love, they went from the desktop to phones. And I think in your home, more and more is going to voice. Because voice works incredibly well. It’s super fast; you can talk three times faster than you can type. It is very convenient; you don’t have to pull out your phone.

So if you’re sitting on your couch, instead of pulling your Samsung S8 out of your pocket, finding the music app, playing the music, and getting distracted by a text message, you can just say, “Alexa, play Bon Jovi,” or whatever your favorite band is. It’s frictionless. It’s way faster.

Gadget Review: This is ecobee’s first device with Alexa. What else are you excited to bring into your product? How do you think about integrating with the ecosystem of smart devices out there?

Lombard: The first answer is light switches. When you pare our light switches with our thermostats, it will work better than either product alone. We’re putting more and more sensors into our devices. Because at the end of the day, once you have a CPU on your wall and it’s connected to the Internet, the incremental cost of adding a sensor is very low.

So these devices will make life simpler and better. We think about our ecosystem strategies very different than what we perceive Nest to be. Nest is creating this proprietary platform. We’re doing the opposite. We know that consumers have platforms that are important in their lives today. So we’re trying to plug into those ecosystems that matter to consumers, whether they’re made by Amazon, Apple, Samsung or Google. If we can plug into those ecosystems, we believe you’re just going to have a way better experience.

Gadget Review: Do you think that there’s going to be a need for a universal Internet of Things platform that helps you control different devices across your home?

Lombard: I don’t think there will be an unlimited number of platforms. I think there will be a small number of platforms, and they probably will be driven by those large Internet companies: Apple, Amazon, Samsung, Google. I don’t see a case where we’ll have 57 platforms.

Gadget Review: So, you see yourself as agnostic in this race?

Lombard: Yeah, totally. We put ourselves in the position of thinking, “What would a consumer want?” I think consumers want choice. In a lot of cases, having more options creates more excitement around the category, which gets more people to adopt it.

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