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Interview – Tony Leedham, Control4

Control4 is a rapidly growing name in the area of home automation and control - and it took a significant step last year when Tony Leedham, co-founder of Control4 distributor Aventure Europe, moved across to work for the manufacturer's recently established EMEA operation. He talked to Paddy Baker about the past, present and future of Control4.

Control4 is a rapidly growing name in the area of home automation and control – and it took a significant step last year when Tony Leedham, co-founder of Control4 distributor Aventure Europe, moved across to work for the manufacturer’s recently established EMEA operation. He talked to Paddy Baker about the past, present and future of Control4.

Q: How did you get into the world of automation and control?

A: I worked on an AV installation in a hotel ballroom in Singapore which had a control system from York Controls: primitive by today’s standards, but a programmable system. I got hooked on control! York was bought out by AMX, and I moved to work for an AMX dealer in the UK. When AMX was looking for a UK distributor I joined them and set this up. This led to establishing European distribution for several AV manufacturers, but when Control4 came to market I jumped at the chance to distribute their products in the UK and formed Aventure Europe. Control4 approached me to look after their EMEA growth, and I now work for Control4.

Q: Control4 was set up to make home automation available to the mid-range, retrofit market. How do you see this market developing? Will it be slow and steady, or will it reach a tipping point?

A: The term ‘broad market’ is often used and certainly Control4 was established to service this sector. However, what we found very quickly is that projects of all sizes, complexity and budgets were being automated by Control4. Both new and retrofit are being catered for. This surprised us and consequently we released controllers that were suitable for all projects – large or small. The retrofit market is moving very well, especially in these difficult economic times: many customers have decided to spend on their existing homes (nesting…).

Retrofit will remain a focus by the use of wireless technology, and our chosen platform of ZigBee is continuing to be developed to offer more features and benefits to the home owner. So I think this sector will continue to grow as ease of install increases and prices slowly fall. We have almost one million ZigBee nodes installed in the market, which allows our dealers to add many retrofit accessory or system expansion products.

Just as important for us is looking after our installers. The more we can add to our range for retrofit, the more potential for them to locate more business.

Q: How important is step-by-step upgradability in the Control4 offering?

A: Very. As our controllers are low-cost and yet very functional, they can easily be included in solutions such as an audio distribution system. This means that many users have ‘dormant’ power already in their homes that can easily be utilised to add feature-rich upgrades. For example as we add products such as energy monitoring, these controllers then become feedback devoices to give home owners useful information on their energy consumption. Not only that but they will be able to program their house to take automatic action to reduce energy!

Q: How significant do you see the iPhone becoming in residential automation? And will it just be the iPhone, or will other phones also see significant use as control interfaces?

A: The ‘i’ products from Apple have become THE product to be associated with. Apple have spawned thousands of businesses, and accessory providers. The superb spread of usage of the iPhone and iTouch has meant many automation companies have decided to develop applications to sit on these devices. We are no exception – it makes sense. The significance to our business per se is difficult to determine accurately. Yes, we have sold numerous licences around the world, but has the interface meant we have attracted customers who would not have looked at us before? No doubt yes, but it’s difficult to quantify.

Giving home owners choice is also important. Yes, we make touch panels, and they sell well, but if someone has such an iconic device as an iPhone why not allow that to be used with our system? And yes, we are looking at similar applications for other mobile devices.

Q: Are you seeing demand for systems that control more than just home entertainment? What other functionality are end users looking for?

A: Yes, we always have. End users have different motives to get into control. It could be just to get audio around their house, dimming lights or automate a home cinema. What is interesting is that no matter what their entry is into control, they usually look at expanding into other areas quite quickly.

New driving forces include energy management and security. Also remote monitoring of a property and automated messaging – email when a door opens for example.

Q: Control4 in the US has just got a substantial new chunk of venture capital funding. What will that be used for?

A: This is for our AMI – Advanced Metering Initiative – business. This is for the energy supply companies (utilities). The basic problem is that governments do not want to build more power stations just to handle peak demand, so they are installing smart meters in the home. This meter can monitor energy consumption and also pass messages to the home owner about such things as an imminent increase in the cost of power. The utilities want to do this to persuade home owners to reduce their consumption and so avoid peak demand problems. This is made even more effective if the home is controlled and can make these power reduction decisions automatically, or at least notify the home owner via their AV systems, or email. Control4 is the wireless control system that does this for the utilities. Having developed product and being involved in several pilot schemes in the USA, we want to move this business unit forward and so have raised funding to do this.

Q: What’s next for Control4 EMEA, and for you personally?

We’ll continue to grow Control4. So far this year we have added six distributors and started negotiations with several more. However it is not just growth in our customer numbers, but also with manufacturing partners. As our platform is open standard (IP and ZigBee), it means that it is easy to interface with us. In addition we are releasing a set of Developer Kits that are available to anyone who wants to work with us. We will even provide all the designs for embedding ZigBee into a product. One of the first to come on board with us is Black & Decker who have embedded our ZigBee technology into a new range of automated door locks. These will come to the European market later this year. We have an initiative to add manufacturing partners regularly and in growing numbers next year in EMEA. In addition, we will add more user interface products to enhance and improve the ways in which you can control your home/lifestyle. We have an exciting year ahead!

For me personally I want to continue to meet customers from across our territory; it’s the best part of what I do. There’s so much to be learnt from them, and always great business opportunities – just sit and listen, amazing what you can find.