WyzeCam: Let’s disrupt a product segment and see what happens

So four ex-Amazon employees get together and decide to pair shamelessly inexpensive, off-the-shelf* tech with some decent software and services, sell it for a jaw-droppingly low retail price. Then, in the course of just a few months, they manage to both get a whole lot of attention — and launch a live experiment into how disruption of a product segment works in the wild. So how’s that experiment going so far?

Wyze Labs, as the Seattle-based company is known, is not far enough along in that experiment for us to know too much about the results just yet, but they have managed to get a ton of attention from everyone from The New York Times to Forbes. They’ve also managed to sell-out shipment after shipment of their first product — the WyzeCam — and get seriously backlogged on tech support responses from all the people who, like me, decided that $20 is a throwaway price point to try something and not worry too much about how it comes out.

I’ve been on the fence about Internet-connected cameras. I travel enough that I’d really like to keep an eye on the house from afar, just for peace of mind. Is the basement flooded because the sump pump failed? Is there a package on the front porch? Was the snowfall last night really that bad? It’s not that I can actually do anything based on what an Internet-connected camera would show me, but, you know, you’d sort of like to know these things. (Yes, indeed, first world problems, as they say.) The issue is that my inclination generally would be to go with a Nest camera, and the cheapest version is $199 a pop. Then there’s the problem of where to put it; looking at the front porch? Out the back? The basement mechanical room? The garage? One camera alone will never be where I want it, and what, I’m buying 3 or 4 at $199 each? Um, no.

Enter the WyzeCam. $20 each. I could blanket my house with these things for the same price as a single Nest camera. And that’s sort of the point. If they don’t suck, why wouldn’t you? (That link is to an Engadget article with basically that headline.)

In early December, I ordered one with that “how bad could it really be?” attitude. They were on backorder, but nevertheless, Wyze got a shipment earlier than they suggested they might, and I received my camera well ahead of their ETA. Setting it up was as easy as their videos and such suggested it would be. The spartan iOS app did what it needed to do, and I’ve been happily checking on my front porch since. (The video doorbell thing is coming at some point, but that’s the subject of another post for another time.) Just before Christmas, I ordered two more of them, and hope to have them in-hand before travel cranks-up again in the new year. We’ll see, but I’m not sure I’m done ordering them either; why stop at just three?

So what’s the experience been like? All in all, not too bad. Here are some thoughts in no particular order:

  • The app is, as I said, spartan — but serviceable. Wyze could use to do some usability testing with real humans and to tweak the user experience of the app based on the results because the app is, in my view, a bit unintuitive. Part of that is around set-up and configuration, and part of that is the separation of viewing notification videos vs. live streaming a camera. But both stem from the fact that right now, I have just one WyzeCam. I can see that the way the app is designed, if you have multiple cameras, the logic would be more… Well, logical. But with a single camera, it feels like things aren’t where they should be.
  • Notifications — setup based on triggers for motion or sound detected by a WyzeCam — are currently limited to a single device. In a multi-person household, that’s a problem, and with a multi-device single person, that’s a problem. Both apply to me. At present, the last device that logged into the app gets the notifications; all other people/devices do not. Wyze says that’s changing soon.
  • The app is not universal. Hopefully it will be soon; at least while at home, I tend to have my iPad at-hand, not my iPhone, and I’d like to interact with and get the notifications on both.
  • The image quality is really quite good — both in infrared (see in the dark) mode, and regular mode.
  • The motion detection is a bit sensitive, even in its lowest-sensitivity setting, but it’s something that could only be resolved by somewhat complicated solutions liked zoned detection areas.

The bottom line for me is the WyzeCam is worth considerably more than the $20 price tag. Does it have the polish and elegance I might expect from a $200 camera? Maybe not. But then, a comparison of the features of the WyzeCam vs. typical entry-level offerings from other players seems to show that everything ticks pretty much the same boxes.

Wyze seems quite committed to addressing some of the shortcomings. Over the holidays, the company posted to social media and their mailing list the results of a customer survey with the top “wants” of its customers. There are a couple of items on that list (see image) that I’d like to see as well, including voice control via Echo/Alexa, and IFTTT integration. I’d also love an outdoor version of the product. We’ll see what the company delivers on in 2018.

But that brings me to my #1 concern about the product — how viable is Wyze Labs’ business model? I don’t personally see how they could possibly be creating a sustainable, scalable, lasting business model around a hardware device with a $20 retail price when the web services needed to support that product involve incremental, ongoing costs to the company in perpetuity — or at least for the lifespan of the device. This reminds me of the late-90s/early-2000s company SportBrain, one of the first connected fitness trackers (if not the first), who also had significant incremental costs associated with their product, and eventually went belly-up. (In SportBrain’s case, they got bought, and then proceeded to morph into a patent troll, and have been suing everyone who makes anything that looks, smells, or acts like a connected fitness tracker; that’s one way to have a corporate afterlife.)

If I were Wyze, I wouldn’t have painted myself into a corner by saying that the web services required to make the product work were free. A much more sensible decision, in my view, would have been to offer those services free for just 90 days, and then require a modest, affordable subscription fee beyond that. They’ve left themselves some wiggle room to provide a subscription-based upgraded service model, but honestly, the services they offer today for free are all most people will want or need in a connected camera. But the tech industry and the VCs who fund them don’t seem to be too concerned with trivial concerns like making money — at least not at first. Given that the product has been available for just a few months at this point, maybe it’ll all work itself out.

Or not. Maybe a year from now I’ll be left with $60 worth of connected cameras that make nice paperweights. I suppose that’s a much better thing than being left with $600 worth of connected cameras that make nice paperweights.

* So, the hardware that Wyze decided to use is apparently a readily available, off-the-shelf camera from a Chinese manufacturer. It’s sold under the XiaoFang and Spot brands as well. What Wyze brings to the table is firmware for that camera, their own apps, and their services infrastructure. Wyze says that you cannot flash the firmware of a XiaoFang or Spot and turn it into a WyzeCam, although I’m guessing that there are creative hackers who could (or already have) done just that. This approach has certainly provided Wyze with great speed-to-market; it’s also a lot cheaper than designing and developing your own hardware and having it custom-made, but it’s also a path that’s not risk-free. Is this going to be their approach long-term? Who knows, but I doubt it. Assuming that Wyze Labs has a sustainable business model after all, my prediction is that this particular path was a cheap way to buy a lot of high-profile attention, and a lot of runway to execute on their real path forward. Time will tell.