Kickstarter vaporware of the day, Lifx edition

By Felix Salmon
September 18, 2012
worried that Kickstarter was morphing into SkyMall for Vaporware.

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Back in March, I worried that Kickstarter was morphing into SkyMall for Vaporware. While Kickstarter is great for creative projects which can be realized by small teams, so far there’s zero evidence that it’s a good way of providing startup capital for would-be businesses. I gave an admittedly extreme example, of the kind of ultra-high-tech industry which needs much more than a Kickstarter campaign in order to succeed.

Getting a product to market is hard. Even companies with business plans and executives and millions of dollars in funding — and a fully-functioning product — can fall down on that front. Look for instance at the Switch lightbulb: in July 2011, Farhad Manjoo of Slate said it would go on sale in October 2011 for $20. In August 2011, Dan Koeppel of Wired magazine ran an article saying that the bulb would go on sale in October for $30. But here we are in March 2012, there’s still no sign of the thing, and the company’s Facebook page is filling up with comments saying things like “I’m going to start my own company making a product that no one can buy. Hmm….what should I not sell? So hard to decide.”

Six months later, the Switch lightbulb still hasn’t arrived. And Koeppel’s article explains some of the good reasons why it’s really, really hard to make these things. For instance: in 2008, the US government offered $10 million to the first company which could produce a 60-watt-equivalent bulb which would draw less than 10 watts of electricity, be dimmable, and generally be at least as good, in all respects bar cost, as incandescents. Philips won the prize, even though, as Koeppel writes, the development costs of doing so were much greater than $10 million:

Coming up with a truly worthy LED bulb is enormously complex, requiring expertise in physics, chemistry, optics, design, and manufacturing… nobody has built such a multidisciplinary lighting product before.

Koeppel’s story was of a small startup company, Switch, which was competing against the three giants in the space — Philips, Osram Sylvania, and GE. But to give you an idea of what you need to compete in this space, Switch has received “an eight-figure investment” from one company alone, VantagePoint Capital Partners. VantagePoint is an investor in a few of these companies: another is BridgeLux, which, according to CrunchBase, has received a total of $210 million in venture funding.

All of which brings me to Lifx, a small group of guys who have just launched a Kickstarter for their revolutionary dimmable LED bulb. It even has wifi! The Kickstarter campaign is going really well so far: it has raised more than $600,000 just since Saturday, far exceeding its $100,000 goal. They claim that the mechanics of the bulb (as opposed to the electronics) are really nothing special:

We are using as many standard LED lighting components as possible. These components have undergone rigid testing and stood the test of time.

At the same time, however, they admit they are still “looking into all the options on the best type/brand of LED lamp to use in the production model”. And you only get a brief glimpse of the prototype in their video; it frankly looks pretty shabby. Their big still photo, on the other hand, is gorgeous: so gorgeous that it’s not a photo at all, just an illustration. Here, compare the Lifx illustration, on the left, with the glossy Condé Nast photo of a real-life Switch bulb, on the right:

bulbs.jpg

The bulb on the light is quite lovely, in its own way, but also shows the kind of design compromises that real-life LED bulbs need to make: a big, heavy heat sink; clearly spaced LEDs, and so on. The illustration on the left, by contrast, looks just like a normal incandescent, only with the bottom half of the bulb replaced by a beautifully-contoured heat sink. You can’t see the LEDs at all.

The heat sink is crucial, especially if you want to put lots of wifi electronics into the bulb. The Switch bulb uses a patented thermally conductive gel to prevent the bulb from overheating; the Lifx bulb uses — well, we have no idea what it might use, since they’re not going into that level of detail. It’s pretty clear from the video that the prototype barely has a heat sink at all.

Lifx founder Phil Bosua, in the video, explains that what he’s doing isn’t cheap. “To produce Lifx at an efficient price point,” he says, “we need to buy thousands of RGB LED lamps, make dies for the outer casing, create custom-built computer boards, and finalize our onboard software and app development”. Does he really think he can do all that for $100,000, or even $1 million?

Put it this way: either Lifx is a genuinely revolutionary new LED bulb, or it isn’t. If it is, then it’s going to run into huge fights just on the intellectual-property front alone: I’m pretty sure they don’t have any important patents, at least on the hardware. And if it isn’t, then lots of people would be out there making LED bulbs, and Lifx would just be coming along to try to add some wifi-enabled control-this-from-your-phone whizz-bangery. (Which, Belkin, maker of the WeMo, might have some patent issues of its own.)

For while there are indeed a fair few LED bulbs on the market at this point, many of them substantially cheaper than the Lifx bulb, there are good reasons why none of them have really taken off. LED bulbs are undoubtedly the lighting device of the future; they just haven’t quite got there yet, and I can’t believe that Lifx has managed to solve the enormous problems that many huge companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying — and generally failing — to fix.

All of which is to say that if the Lifx bulb ever ships, it’s going to be a gimmicky disappointment at best. The “white” light won’t be warm and rich, the illumination will come out in clumps rather than being even, the bulb will hum when it’s dimmed, the electronics will fail in the heat, etc.

And there’s a very real risk — I’d say it’s a probability — that the Lifx bulb will simply never ship at all. If Switch can’t do it, with their working prototypes and their patents and their tens of millions of dollars in funding, not to mention no desire that their bulbs be controlled from iPhones, then there’s no good reason to believe that Lifx can, as they’re promising, start delivering these things in March. Their last project, after all, was basically a collapsible cardboard box; it raised $184,500 — well above its $12,500 goal — and was meant to be delivered in July. The backers are still waiting; the most recent shipping date is mid-October.

The Lifx is priced at $49 per bulb, which means that you’re basically buying a basic WeMo switch and getting the LED bulb — and all the technology merging the two into one bulb-sized piece of hardware — for free. It just doesn’t seem likely.

Despite the fact that there’s really no reason to believe that the Lifx team can produce what it’s promising, in the first few days Lifx signed up five backers at the $5,000 level, each of whom was ordering “25 packs of four LIFX smartbulbs for resale”. That’s not actually allowed by Kickstarter any more, and they put an end to that after I asked about it. But still, there are lots of people putting in very large orders — already 108 backers have pledged $490 or more. Those people are going to be very disappointed if they end up receiving nothing.

These people aren’t just being seduced by a clever sales pitch: they’re being shepherded there by lots of very high-profile blogs, such as Wired and TechCrunch and Mashable and GigaOm. And, of course, Reddit, where at least there’s quite a lot of skepticism, not least when it comes to the question of how a phone can configure a lightbulb before the lightbulb knows what wifi network to join.

So my feeling is that both Kickstarter and the tech blogosphere should start being a lot more skeptical about the claims made in Kickstarter videos, where anybody can say pretty much anything. And anybody thinking about supporting Lifx should take a deep breath and just wait until the product exists, instead. It’s funded, now, so pre-ordering on Kickstarter doesn’t cause the product to get made, it just maybe gets you the product a couple of weeks earlier. And in return for that negligible upside, you’re taking on the risk of a huge downside — that you lose all that money entirely, with nothing to show for it at all.

Update: Lots of smart comments below, both defending Lifx and raising new problems — such as the need to get certification in multiple jurisdictions, since they’ll be shipping the bulb under their own trademark.

Lifx itself has three reactions to this post. First, they’ve made public the 12-step process for setting the Lifx bulbs up as part of your wireless network — it involves switching your phone to the Lifx network, configuring the Lifx bulb to your wifi network, and then switching your phone back to your own network.

Second is a comment from founder Phil Bosua:

Addressing the recent Reuters article: We originally had meetings with our Melbourne/Shenzen LED bulb supplier which proved the project to be viable but as the demand for the LIFX smartbulb continues to grow so will the scale of partners we work with. We have also recently had meetings with companies experienced in large scale LED light bulb manufacturing and will be utilising their experience and knowledge to attach the LIFX control chip into tried and tested LED light bulb technology.

We know that the demand for a smartbulb is clear. It takes a big vision, a lot of work and smart operations to revolutionize a main stay product and with your support this is what we are going to do.

And third is a comment on the Lifx tech blog:

An approach I’d really like to follow is “Please don’t feed the internet trolls“.  We must focus our complete attention on delivering your pledges and answering your questions and comments.  LiFx has attracted a lot of attention, not all of it good.  Some people are just waiting for a large KickStarter project to fail, without any regard for the interests of the supporters of that project.

We’ve all seen the Reuter’s opinion piece and I don’t want to waste time responding to it.  Primarily, because I don’t need to respond … thanks to “KenG_CA” whose comment at the bottom of that opinion piece has already made a rebuttal.  Thanks Ken … whoever you are !  I have nothing more to say about that piece.

So, if you think I’m an internet troll who just wants Lifx to fail and who doesn’t care about the supporters of the project, then you’re pretty much in line with the thinking within Lifx. But if you were looking for a more detailed response from Lifx, sorry — it looks like you’re not going to get one.

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