“I don’t know you’ve seen this thing yet, but it’s light enough, and it’s got Velcro mounting, so if you have a sunny window somewhere in the house, you can just open the window, reach out, and—after you turn it on—just stick it out there, and it’ll be solar-charged and run autonomously.”
Ray Ozzie is on the other end of a Zoom call showing off Airnote, the new air quality monitor from his latest startup, Blues Wireless. As he talks, he brandishes the device—a palm-sized white box with a small LCD display, a built-in AT&T data connection, and an angled top that sports a solar panel.
I am at least mildly surprised to find myself in the position of having Ray Ozzie explain a new gadget to me. Since the 1980s, after all, he has been known as one of the biggest brains in software—the mastermind behind pioneering “groupware” application Lotus Notes (still extant as HCL Notes) and then Groove and Talko, two intriguing collaboration startups he ended up selling to Microsoft. In between Groove and Talko, he served as Microsoft’s chief software architect, succeeding a fellow named Bill Gates and bootstrapping Azure, the portfolio of cloud-based services that eventually turned out to be the future of the company.
Then again, Ozzie’s intellect has always been focused on the future of communications and collaboration, and that connects some of the dots between his past lives and Blues. Since 2019, the startup has been quietly working on Internet of Things (IoT) hardware and services designed to make it much easier to give just about anything a wireless internet connection. Its pilot customers—whom Blues isn’t ready to talk about yet—have built its Notecard system-on-module board into their own creations.
With Airnote, Blues has become its own customer, embedding Notecard in a $149 air quality monitor intended for outdoor use and aimed at both consumers and businesses. It goes on sale on Blues’ site today and is scheduled to ship in early April.
To Ozzie, the way Blues shuttles data across the net is still a form of collaboration, even if it’s not human-to-human. “The opportunity here is really to collaborate with machines, not just with people,” he says. The company, which employs around 30 people, is also a personal opportunity for him to go back to basics, getting his hands dirty in ways he’d left behind decades ago: “I haven’t done hardware since the seventies or coded since ’96, and it’s been an amazing journey.”
A failure to communicate
The ideas that became Blues Wireless have their roots in natural disaster and the challenges of disseminating essential information in its wake—another fact that links the company to Ozzie’s bona fides in communications. Ten years ago this week, Japan suffered the most powerful earthquake in its history, which spawned a massive tsunami. Those catastrophes in turn led to the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which—just by themselves—required the evacuation of 154,000 people.
To complicate matters further, the Japanese government and the power plant’s managers were soon criticized for their inadequate communications about the nuclear accident and its implications to the country’s residents. That led a group of technologists and community leaders to wonder if they could step in and spread information where official channels had failed.
“The concept was, there was no real data being given to the citizens who were impacted at the time,” explains Ozzie. “The government was shuffling them here and there on buses and not really giving any explanation. And we thought, well, maybe we could help.”
They don’t have to call their daughter-in-law or son-in-law to configure the Wi-Fi or remember the password.”
Assembling a network to reliably move all that essential data around may have been rewarding work, but it was a complex and arcane process requiring lots of specialized knowledge. Ozzie began to think about ways to simplify it, so that any organization that wanted to give devices wireless connectivity could do so without networking expertise. Eventually, he founded Blues Wireless to pursue that goal. (The name “Blues,” he says, references both the musical genre—he’s a fan—and the sky, since the cloud is so integral to the company’s mission.)
Blues’ Notecard is a small plug-in module that starts at $49. It includes built-in AT&T wireless capability: currently LTE and sometimes an optimized-for-IoT standard called NB-IoT. The company also offers a variety of starter kits, software, and services intended to turn the Notecard into plug-and-play connectivity for any application that needs it.
It’s not just about making wireless data easy for product designers. “The Notecard was designed so that product manufacturers could embed it, and the end user—the person who ends up having to install it—doesn’t have to do anything to get it on the network,” says Ozzie. “They don’t have to call their daughter-in-law or son-in-law to configure the Wi-Fi or remember the password. They don’t have to worry if it’s within coverage.”
A critical part of that proposition is that the Notecard’s $49 price includes 10 years of AT&T service that’s just there, ready to go without the user having to do so much as activate a SIM card or choose a data plan. Ozzie freely acknowledges drawing inspiration from Amazon’s Whispernet; that technology, which debuted back in 2007 with the original Kindle, gave the e-reader a 3G wireless connection for downloading books that was similarly free of cost or complication.
Ozzie, who was an advisor to AT&T before hatching plans for Blues Wireless, says that the telecom giant loved his concept and understood why it made sense for it to be a startup. “I said, ‘Look, you’re not going to deliver these dreams of 5G and billions of devices unless you make the developer experience much, much, much easier,'” he recounts. “And they got it right off. They just said, ‘We can’t do it. How about if we partner on it?’ And that’s why they were willing to work with me on a novel business plan and business model.”
But wait—typical startups would salivate at the recurring revenue that comes with subscription fees. Why is Ozzie forgoing them in favor of folding the cost of wireless service into hardware that doesn’t cost much in the first place?
I invested a lot in this company. I have some investors who would love to make a return on this.”
For starters, Ozzie argues that Blues can turn a profit on the Notecard’s $49 price and that customers whose wireless data use amounts to only a trickle aren’t a burden: “If a device is only sending a few pings through a day, it doesn’t cost us much of anything.”
He adds that larger customers—the sort that might buy Notecards in volume—will appreciate that Blues’ products absolve them of the need to manage wireless service and the monthly cost thereof. That itself should make the company’s products more appealing and help it scale up.
Besides, Ozzie says, there’s plenty of opportunity for Blues to make money from services even if the AT&T connection is part of the hardware purchase. For more ambitious projects, Blues offers for-pay options starting at $49 a month, with benefits such as the ability to run additional data through Blues’ cloud, support for larger teams of collaborators, and higher-touch customer support. The company will also put together custom service packages for enterprise clients.
The air out there
All of this brings us back to the Airnote air quality monitor. Ozzie says that Blues Wireless decided to build it because of growing interest among consumers in the air quality around their homes—an idea that anyone who lives even remotely near any of the California wildfires can appreciate. “People are wondering, ‘Should I send my kids outside to play soccer today?,” he says. “You know, is it just about annoyance or is it really impacting your health?”
Airnote is the first Blues product that consumers might buy for their own households. But Ozzie clearly doesn’t aspire to turn Blues into a Nest-like purveyor of sexy smart-home electronics. Rather than offering a gorgeous color touchscreen or voice controls, the device’s on-device user interface consists of a monochrome LCD readout akin to those seen on digital watches for decades.
Airnote’s design priorities are similar to those of the Notecard that helps make it possible. Instead of relying on your Wi-Fi—which would require setup and might be a showstopper if the signal is spotty where you want to place the device—it’s delivered to you ready to connect via AT&T. The solar panel relieves you of having to futz with batteries or snake a cable.
At $149, Ozzie says that Airnote costs half what you might pay for another air quality monitor, and that Blues was able to build the device it wanted and price it aggressively because of the ready availability of components originally engineered for smartphones. “Oddly, the thing that was most expensive and most difficult about this is the enclosure,” he adds. Blues could have stuck its electronics in an existing case, but “we wanted something light enough and customized enough that you could put it on the window and not have it fall.“
Once you’ve stuck Airnote on a window, you might not spend much time interacting with it directly. The data it collects will show up in a dashboard on Safecast’s website—again, with no configuration required. Your data will also get pooled into Safecast’s worldwide, open-source air quality database; Ozzie thinks that some purchasers will buy an Airnote in part for the opportunity to contribute to that nonprofit initiative.
As part of its relationship with Safecast, Blues also repurposed the Airnote platform into a bespoke device that is not currently for sale: a radiation monitor. On March 13, Safecast plans to host a live event from Fukushima on YouTube, updating viewers on the situation a decade after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns. The schedule includes a drive-through tour of the area—and along the way, the Safecast team plans to install Blues’ air quality and radiation monitors. “They’re kind of leaving golden breadcrumbs as they drive, and it’s going to be a lot of fun,” says Ozzie.
In the end, the Blues Wireless vision isn’t about anything the company builds on its own so much as the good that could come if all sorts of people tackled all sorts of challenges with internet-connected sensors. “If the world were instrumented with air quality and water quality monitor monitors, maybe Flint wouldn’t have happened,” Ozzie muses. He talks about the day when Blues helps embed wireless connectivity in everything from rural propane tanks to urban rodent traps—the latter being a real-world application that AT&T brought to his attention.
By making wireless connectivity simple and cost-effective, Blues could play a role in turning many problem-solving ideas into reality. “It’s not complex math or rocket science,” says Ozzie. “But it could be transformational when taken at the society level.”