Spark Devices aims to be the connector of connected devices

By Richard Nieva , written on May 10, 2013

From The News Desk

We need to talk about the connected fart machine. There is one prototype that apparently exists somewhere in Shenzhen, China.

If connected devices are the future, we’ve got to be resigned to the fact that we’re just going to suffer through some clunkers. (Yes, we’re looking at you, Samsung fridge.) And as the market finds its legs, slapping Wi-Fi connectivity on various products could be as common as putting a bird on it. Spark Devices takes a particularly DIY approach. It wants to be the company that leads the way in enabling developers to make connected…anythings.

The company is a member of the HAXLR8R incubator, based both in Shenzhen and San Francisco, focused solely on hardware companies. Spark Device’s product itself, called the Spark Core, is a tiny, Wi-Fi enabled circuit board that allows device makers to easily infuse the Web onto products. Think of it as some kind of Frankenstein chip. Some examples include hacking a refrigerator magnet so it can Tweet, or – much more compelling – a connected, solar powered surveillance camera.

Then there’s the connected fart machine that HAXLR8R founder Cyril Ebersweiler says was apparently built by one developer from another HAXLR8R company as a joke, using the Spark Core. He’s not sure exactly how it works, but it probably involves a whoopi cushion.

Launched on Kickstarter last week, the company has already smashed its modest goal of $10,000 with more than $220,000 collected from more than 2,500 backers. The campaign ends on June 1st, and the company says it will start shipping circuit boards in September, each costing $39.

The product is aimed at three different crowds. First is the hobbyist or tinkerer who will mess around with the Spark Core and build it into personal projects. Next is the small startup looking to build a prototype of a connected device, then buying the Cores in bulk when they begin to mass-produce. The third target is large, legacy manufacturers who are looking to build Wi-Fi connectivity into their existing products. Because they will be looking to lower costs while producing at such a large sale, Spark won’t sell them the actual device, but instead helps them implement the Spark Core’s design into the circuit boards of their existing products.

But Spark Devices not only fancies itself a parts maker. It’s also positioning itself as an infrastructure company. The obvious stipulation for connected devices is that there are always two components to the equation: hardware and software. But when a connected device maker sells a product, they only make money on it once – when they sell it to a customer. Meanwhile, they must pay a subscription to a platform-as-a-service, or PaaS company, to keep the software part of the device’s service up and running.

Spark instead wants to sell access to Spark Cloud – its own connected device platform that hosts the software infrastructure – as a one-time fee built into the cost of producing each product unit. Then Spark will host it for the lifetime of the product, instead of the client company having to pay a subscription to the cloud service. Co-founder and CEO Zach Supalla says it would be a big draw for companies just looking into experimenting with connected devices, minimizing the fear of having to host a software service forever if the product flops.

It raises an interesting question about connected products that hasn’t really been discussed: What happens if the device maker companies go belly up? Do they keep hosting the service, or do customers who bought the products just get screwed because the software element of the product shuts down? Spark hopes to alleviate that problem by taking over cloud hosting duties, but that yields just another question. If Spark is the one shouldering the cloud hosting burden, then what if Spark flops?

Supalla says that’s not a problem because Spark keeps almost everything open sourced – design files, communications standards, lists of materials. If Spark goes under, then someone else can take over. “We’ve set it up so, if we go away, everything keeps working,” he says.

These are things that companies in the category will have to deal with going forward. The connected device market is nascent, but there are certainly solid businesses like Nest and Jawbone that have carved out a path. Spark Devices appears to have genuine designs on pushing the rest of market forward. There will, of course, be fits and starts, and lemons, and connected fart machines along the way. But if the plan is to see the market to maturity, it has to go through adolescence. And what’s adolescence without a few fart jokes?