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Paoli tech: Zonoff demos office apps at DuckDuckGo

Smart-equipped small business

"We want a cool office," says Gabriel Weinberg, founder of six-year-old DuckDuckGo, the Google-challenging search site that promises "Real Privacy -- Smarter Search -- Less Clutter."

The MIT grad's style sense led DuckDuckGo, which keeps 25 software developers and designers busy powering 200 million monthly user searches, to build its headquarters in the top two floors of a stone-fronted, turret-topped, asymmetrical office building on Paoli Pike, two blocks from the Paoli Amtrak station and a short drive from Weinberg's home on Valley Forge Mountain.

It also led Weinberg to partner with another local tech firm, Zonoff, a Great Valley-based company that has raised $36 million from venture capitalists since last fall to back Zonoff's "Internet of things" software, linking home and computing appliances, to build a system at  DuckDuckGo using Zonoff's smartphone apps, with a dashboard that opens at a fingertouch to give the software firm remote control over locks, cameras, lights, utilities and computer systems and settings.

"We're hearing a lot about home automation, but still very little about small-office automation," says Bob Cooper, Zonoff's marketing chief. "We think this is a great environment for small businesses. And DuckDuckGo is a good place to demonstrate it."

Home and small-business automators typically start with three or four devices, get excited as they learn more about what's available, and double the network within the first six months, says Zonoff founder Mike Harris, who ran Ravisent Technologies and AnySource Media before setting up Zonoff in 2011. The company now employs 50 and is leasing larger offices so it can double staff over the next year.

Customers typically start with a wireless camera, so they can watch workers (and any intruders); or a remote-controlled doorlock, so the boss can let people in, even when he's not there; or a single switch that powers computers on or off, raises blinds and lowers thermostats, according to time and weather conditions.

DuckDuckGo installed 37 devices: EcoLink motion and light sensors; Aeotec smart power strips, with a wireless switch and signaller in each outlet; remote controls, power shades and switch plates, all from Lutron Electronics Corp., in Coopersburg, near Quakertown; D-Link video cameras, and a wallet-size control hub to connect them; Levitron Z-Wave smart wall switches; and compatible Honeywell thermostats, Kwikset door locks and Philips color LED lights.

The job priced at around $6,500: the battery-powered blinds totalled around $1,900 of that, an electrical contractor another $1,700. The devices are sold retail at Staples; Cooper says most "can be easily installed by a homeowner."

Cooper says Weinberg's system saves the company money by lowering the thermostat and the blinds and shutting off machines when not in use. Weinberg says he's never stopped to count those savings; he's more interested in the gadgets and what they do.

Critics of the "Internet of Things" worry that industry and users have taken years to settle on common standards; expensive equipment from just a few years ago has already become tough to update.

Cooper says networks like the one at DuckDuckGo use well-established industry protocols like Zwave and ZigBee. The devices communicate, not like Wi-Fi, from a signal node, but directly with one another, through a "mesh network" of wireless connections that is easily expanded and updated, he says.

How's this working? Weinberg says he's happy, and not just because he no longer has to ask his wife (who is busy enough as a corporate statistician and mother of two) to have to drive over to open the office at the odd hours developers work or out-of-town tech visitors materialize.

"I wanted one switch to turn everything on and off, and to be able to add cool stuff, and that's what I have," Weinberg said. "That's a Wow! moment."