Eight years in the making, has Prodea Systems' home automation platform arrived too late?

By James Robinson , written on April 9, 2014

From The News Desk

There are seven people from Texas’ Prodea Systems waiting for me inside a room at the Four Seasons hotel in San Francisco. It is an intense welcome. Prodea has spent eight years in stealth developing its connected home platform that the gang is about to show off to me, a unifying tool to bring the various innovations of the Internet of Things all together inside the home. Given that wait, the intensity makes more sense.

There’s a lot riding on this one launch. One hundred million dollars have been invested in Prodea since it began on this quest, by institutions, individuals and the founders themselves. It has 16 patents and eight more applications pending. The three founders, CEO Anousheh Ansari, her husband Hamid who serves as President, and brother-in-law Amir, Chief Technology Officer, founded Telecom Technologies in 1993, which they sold for $1.2 billion in 2000. They have a definite air of not messing around. As Anousheh touts earnestly to me, she has been to space, the first Iranian-born person ever to go and just the fourth-ever self-funded tourist.

Anousheh jokes that going to space was actually a lot easier than organically redefining our relationship with our digital lives. Prodea was created in 2006 with the idea of building a platform to provide for a seamless digital lifestyle. “Our motivation was self-serving. We’re all electrical engineers and the IT managers of our households,” she laughs.

“Eight years ago, there was no Internet of Things. Content was not so digitally available. We had to get out and build an IoT platform without knowing it.”

It wasn’t supposed to take eight years, however. The fact that the three Ansaris are the largest investors in their own company alongside their track record with Telecom Technologies helped buy them time and patience. They were trying to fix a lifestyle problem as our digital lifestyles were in flux, innovating for both the now and the ever evolving future.

The good news for Prodea is that after all this time its solution, the Residential Operating System - or ROS, as they would have you refer to it - is undoubtedly comprehensive. As the Prodea gang acts out for me in their hotel room, the TV is the centerpiece of the connected home and each mobile device can be its own customizable interface and remote. I can program the ROS to turn off the lights and air conditioning in my home when I leave. I can order a movie from my iPad and have it waiting for me on the TV when I get home. When I start the movie, I can program it to order me a pizza without asking. I can connect up my Fitbit scales and send the ROS my weight and vital signs, where it will send me health videos or set up doctor’s appointments if it detects something wrong. Family members can leave messages for each other. Parents can program a TV to not unlock for their children until they’ve done their homework. It is a smart TV and Internet of Things super toy, all in one. It launched the ROS in seven markets internationally, before America.

I feel an apprehension in watching eight years of work and wondering whether Prodea is a step too late into the market here. The three founders see Prodea’s ROS as a trojan horse in the home that other Internet of Things services can bolt onto as they come along. “You don’t need to sell the connected home as the connected home,” Anousheh says. It is not new thinking. Every Internet of Things device from Nest on down fancies itself as the trojan horse, a hook into the household from which to spread outwards.

Prodea is now part of the crowd trying to connect up the home, all centered around the TV. In 2006 they were years ahead. Now, not so much. Prodea is soon going to find itself up against Amazon Fire, Google’s coming set top box and an upgraded Apple TV competitor. Google and Apple can slowly build up a de facto connected home by linking in our tablets and smartphones to the TV. Prodea plans to beat that by taking the ROS to market through service providers. Two of its first customers are Fort Capital, a housing company in Miami who will install Prodea in its properties and a Latin American cable network called Canal Sur.

But Prodea risks putting itself on the wrong side of history here. For now, consumers most want access to digital content and an ability to move easily between the different screens we use. We don’t need a set of scales to book doctors appointments or a program to order pizza for us. Yet.

Prodea’s competitors will be hooking us with content and slowly figuring out what we need as we develop new preferences. Prodea wants to give us the future all at once. It is a bold, if potentially doomed, play. Eight years in there's no time left for second guessing.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]