When Fraser Stirling was 16, his father asked him what he wanted to study in school. His answer: industrial design.
His father, who’s been an assistant principal and a soccer coach, wasn’t pleased. “[He] said that was not a proper job for a man in his house,” Stirling recalled in a thick Scottish accent. “He wanted me to get a job where I could actually make some money.”
Twenty years later, Stirling is in charge of designing products for the unlikeliest of companies: Comcast.
Yes, the nation’s largest cable company, known for delivering “The Walking Dead” to your TV and making you wait hours for a repair technician, is (kinda) entering the hardware business. Comcast has unveiled its first family of products specifically designed by the company to serve its Xfinity Home business.
The focus on design comes as Comcast is amping up the business of automating your whole home — a contrarian approach in a market largely aimed at DIY enthusiasts piecing together their own smart home setups. Comcast is instead going after mainstream customers who don’t have the time or desire to fiddle with touchscreen-controlled deadbolts and their finicky apps. The cost for this convenience is a contractual monthly fee instead of a larger one-time fee.
Comcast has no aspirations to go after the likes of Apple or Samsung when it comes to slick products sold by the millions. And it’s still working with partners to actually build its devices. But by putting resources behind design and not just using something off the shelf, Comcast hopes to establish an identity that goes beyond a basic cable company. And, hopefully, surprise some people.
“What do you want people to feel when they pick it up?” Stirling said in an interview last week. “We want to drive the idea that this is a premium product.”
A design identity
Comcast launched its Xfinity Home service in 2011, but hasn’t been particularly vocal about the business. It has used security as the primary hook, with the intent to sell you on additional automation services.
Under the Xfinity umbrella, you’ll find the Home xCam, Home Wireless Keypad, Home Motion Sensor and Home Door and Window Sensor.
The products have a unique look. Stirling employs sharp 35- to 40-degree angles in the manner of triangles and even parallelograms, which he said lends a sense of motion to static objects. They share the same “Comcast white” color scheme.
Stirling, who previously worked for Intel on its ill-fated TV set-top box business and spent a decade at Sky UK (then known as British Sky Broadcasting), said his goal is for someone to look at his products and go, “You know what, somebody thought about that.”
The consistent look reinforces the idea that this is a single package of products and services, rather than the early-adopter model of a piecemeal system. Comcast isn’t the first to do this, but it is one of the biggest service providers to get into this business.
The Comcast pitch
Comcast relies on two strengths to distinguish it from the DIY market: lower upfront costs and professional, pain-free installation. In exchange, users pay a monthly fee — the service starts at $40 a month, with 24-hour recording an additional $10 — and sign a two-year contract.
“We have knowledge and expertise to drive this into the wide mass market,” said Daniel Herscovici, head of Comcast’s Xfinity Home business, in an interview.
As of the first quarter of 2015, it had 500,000 customers, although it now claims to be the fastest-growing home security company in its regions.
It’s hardly alone in hoping to cash in on the smart home boom. There are 6.4 billion connected devices around the world in use this year, and the volume is projected to more than triple to 20.8 billion by 2020, according to Gartner. Many of those devices will be in the home.
Elements of the Xfinity Home package will remind you of AT&T’s Digital Life, another massive service provider trying to hook you with the idea of convenience over the pain of installation and maintenance. Herscovici said the two compete in less than half of their respective markets.
AT&T declined to comment on Comcast.
Not for everyone
Younger consumers, however, may not find the offer so compelling. After all, it means waiting for an installer to show up, dealing with service contracts and committing to services for years at a time. DIYers could take the one-time financial hit and install their own custom systems, employing setups that work with Apple’s HomeKit or Google Home.
Both Comcast and AT&T partner with a number of smart home device makers like August for door locks or GE for lightbulbs, which bridges the gap between the DIY approach and the managed service model.
Comcast’s pending acquisition of Icontrol Networks could open the door to partnerships with more specialized developers. Icontrol’s flagship product, a smart cam called the Piper NV, was notable for its ability to communicate using the Z-Wave protocol — a radio technology that many devices popular among DIYers use to talk with each other.
But for now, Comcast has tight control over its family of products, with just a few “trusted” partners. As for the products of its own design, home security is just the start. Stirling’s fingerprints will be on future Comcast hardware.
That’s enough to earn his father’s respect. “He thinks it’s magic,” Stirling said.
Correction, 6:39 a.m. PT: Fixes Fraser Stirling’s name.
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