Most weather apps give you very general info—what’s the weather like in a given city? But how many times does the official air temp clash with what you feel on the hot concrete outside of the conference center, in the wind tunnel below your office tower, or at the beach where you're going to surf? Why isn't it possible to get blobk-by-block weather reports that are as granular as Google Maps? That’s the promise of the Wi-FI Weather Station, a new cloud-connected device rolled out by the Chinese company Sina and the Sunnyvale startup Ayla Networks.
But the vision for the future for this type of device goes way beyond today's weather forecast.
The thing itself, which is even less attractive than, say, Square's plastic dongle that enables its network, isn't fancy or sophisticated—Sina wouldn’t be able to give away millions of them for free if it was. But that’s kind of the point. Ayla Networks, which provided the software and the cloud service that allows the Wi-Fi Weather Station to share data, sees a big market opportunity in helping manufacturers connect the simplest and cheapest devices to the cloud.
Sina (pronounced (see-NA) is the company behind Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging service with over half a billion users. Sina also offers a weather app with over 30 million users, and its new Wi-Fi Weather Station is primarily intended to increase the detail and accuracy of the weather reports and forecasts dispensed by that app. Sina will sell some devices, but it will also give many away to users of their weather app, and install many units in popular locales. Once they’re set up, the weather stations will deliver temperature and precipitation info to the cloud, allowing Sina to provide much more granular weather reports (say, instead of giving the temperature in Shanghai, it can give the temperature at the the Jin Mao Tower in the Pudong district of Shanghai.)
Until now, most of the talk about the coming network of wirelessly connected appliances and devices—the Internet of Things—has focused on high-end products like the Nest Thermostat. The device created by former Apple employees lets you change the temperature in your house over the Internet, and it will learn the temperature you like. But it costs $250.
"You don’t want to make a $200 light switch," says Ayla cofounder and CEO David Friedman, who envisions much simpler single-function devices connecting to form complex, smart networks. "It’s easy to see the utility of a smoke detector that can send you an text message when it detects smoke, but that takes a huge amount of software. And the carbon monoxide sensor could be a tiny 8 bit microcontroller, with no space for a networking module."
Ayla, which just secured $5.4 million in Series A funding, has partnered with companies like Broadcom to put its software in cheap compact Wi-Fi modules that lets them speak similar languages and enable smarter, more complex networks. For a one-time charge, Ayla will provide a device with a cloud service and application libraries that’ll work with a variety of platforms (Android, iOS, Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Linux, etc.) "OEM customers won’t have to write software for netwokring, security, firewalls, the cloud," Friedman promises.
Friedman says his goal is to create a service that’s as flexible as possible. "It’s the same platform for a weather station or a thermostat or a blood pressure cuff or irrigation controllers that know not to water your lawn when it’s raining," says Friedman. "If we think outwards three to five years, what are the cool Internet of Things devices going to be? We just don’t know; the markets are way too new and unrefined. You have to give the developer flexibility."
Friedman naturally believes that Ayla will help keep the added cost of cloud-connected devices down, but he also foresees a time when price differentials between smart devices and dumb devices may vanish for other reasons. "A smart thermostat should not have its own touch screen, and soon it won’t—it will have a great app that you operate from your touch-screen devices," he predicts. "If we can pull off the buttons and the knobs and interfaces, then connected devices may reach cost parity with unconnected devices."