British Gas takes Hive on US road trip in bid for one...

British Gas takes Hive on US road trip in bid for one million customers

Hive connected devices set to head Stateside

British Gas takes Hive on US road trip in bid for one million customers
British Gas takes Hive on US road trip in bid for one million customers

Hive Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Seb Chakraborty has outlined the company’s vision for the future at an IoB gathering in London last week, and it could include external APIs, up to a million customers, and taking its connected devices on a US road-trip.

LONDON, UK – Chakraborty was a keynote speaker at our IoT Build conference in London last week, where he gave a candid overview of Hive’s progress to date, including its ambitions with new products and its challenge in finding and hiring talented DevOps and data science specialists.

The (customer) journey so far

In a presentation that would give hope to many fledging IoT start-ups, he explained how Hive initially struggled to get people interested in a company or its products, which were based on energy monitoring technology from Cambridge-based AlertMe (Hive ended up acquiring the firm for £44 million last February).

We started back in 2013 when we were spun out of British Gas as an idea and start-up. The whole journey from that moment in a small street in Rathbone, near Charlotte Street [London], has been one roller-coaster of a journey for us and everyone involved.”

In 2013, he added that Hive “couldn’t even get reporters through the door” due to a lack of interest but how times have changed — last month Chakraborty’s insights on the smart home could be found adorning the pages of Wired magazine.

Today’s Hive has developed into a much bigger beast, one of the first examples of connected devices successfully entering the home. Chakraborty reveals that Hive now has in the region of 360,000 customers, a variety of sensory products and a new transatlantic approach which should see it target the US market in the coming year.

This success, says Chakraborty, comes from Hive being customer-centric, something he says other vendors often only “pay lip-service to”.

“We try and put the customer first in everything we do. It’s an attitude thing,” he explained, citing Apple founder Steve Jobs’ quote on telling customers what they want as an example of the ethos Hive has tried to create.

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Steve Jobs, 1998

British Gas has subsequently, explains Chakraborty, gone through A/B testing of its customers and says it regularly scores highly on industry rankings for customer satisfaction. He said the firm ‘majored’ on getting the design process as slick as possible – and of remediating customer issues as soon as they appear.

“You start simple, you get to know customers, and you scale out – which is basically what we’ve done,” said Chakraborty.

It’s all about data, cloud and the lean mean machine

Part of this customer focus revolves around data collection and analysis. As we’ve reported previously on IoB, British Gas has brought its data engineering and data science teams together, with the duo collaborating over Apache Spark, Cassandra and other database technologies to truly understand their customers, and heating usage in the home.

“You should measure as much data as is appropriate to help understand what you’re trying to solve,” said Chakraborty at IoT Build, adding by the way of a word of caution that the hundreds of messages through can cause problems on overload and user privacy.

There have been technical challenges of course, with the Hive CTO highlighting difficulties around the plastic original Hive (Hive 2 was developed in conjunction with Swiss designer Yves Béhar, who also designed the Jawbone wearable), and on the back-end.

And much of its success has been down to a different way of doing things and streamlining technology and operations. British Gas Connected Homes’ head of data and analytics Jim Anning previously told of the firm running innovation projects in eight week ‘chunks’ (and killing them after that if they were unsuccessful), while Chakraborty here spoke of embracing agile development (rather than the traditional Waterfall method of application development), DevOps, and ensuring product owners are “embedded” in the team and customer experience.

Furthermore, with IoT clearly an “always-on service”, he emphasized the importance of reliability, DevOps and scalability. Indeed, on the latter, it is that reason why the CTO said that Hive now builds everything in Amazon’s AWS as it is “efficient, fast and good to scale in cloud environments.”

Related: Fail fast and hire good data scientists – the British Gas recipe for IoT success

Hive to target B2B markets?

Chakraborty noted that Hive started from an idea, but there was no solid proposal behind it initially. It could have been anything, targeting anyone.

When we started Hive, we didn’t know what going be at that point…it could have been a B2B company, B2B to B2C, we could have started security…or played in the insurance space.  We had that dilemma of what do we go after.

“When we thought more about it, thermostats by themselves are pretty complicated…. Edwardian, Victorian households, council homes are all different and have different thermal properties.”

Speaking to me later in our video interview – to be published on IoB TV – he admitted that Hive is interested in other markets, such as insurance and security, for 2017.

seb-chakraborty
Hive CTO Seb Chakraborty speaking at our IoT Build conference

US market and APIs

The future is clear for Hive, and it involves US adoption, as many as one million customers, external APIs and new services.

Motion sensors, door sensors, light sensors have emerged on the market in the last year, while Hive has started to partner with Amazon’s Echo, IFTT and others to widen its role in the broader IoT ecosystem.

Indeed, further illustrating the importance of partnerships, Hive is experimenting with the Thread communication protocol, which has been developed by Google’s Nest – a direct competitor no less.

The next step for the firm is to go multi-territory, namely expanding its presence in North America – “more of that kind of thing will come”, said Chakraborty – and driving up its install base.

“We have 360,000 customers on our platform, what our next target is going to be is 500,000,” he said, before highlighting the potential of growing the user base to one million.

Amazon and standards ‘headache’

Chakraborty also offered up some words of wisdom of a developing IoT landscape, suggesting that some platform players will disappear into bigger giants such as Amazon IoT, which the firm is already working with.

Hiring, such as data scientists and DevOps team members, is an issue, but standards is another which keeps reading its ugly head.

“There are so many IoT standards it’s a bit of headache really, it’s very confusing. Our view tends to be we tend to follow market.

“…We’re predominantly working with ZigBee…we’re going to do Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, potentially ZWave in the US market. We’re playing with things like Thread and HomeKit. But, like I said, we’re going to follow the market and see what’s appropriate.” MQTT, the lightweight messaging protocol for sensors and mobile devices to communicate with each other, will “definitely” be introduced into the Hive stack too, although Chakraborty gave no indication as to when.

An external API may also be in the works.

“Developers will always ask for APIs….App building is becoming easier and easier. You don’t have to learn objective-C and Java anymore. We can quickly build an app, or hook a device to a Raspberry Pi to MQTT, hook it up to Amazon IoT, and have an app on the front end. It changes the speed [of application development].”

Related: 10 real-life examples of IoT powering the future of energy

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