Enterprise

Listening to the crowd proves a slippery slope for Soap

soap-router-home-automation-tablet

Alexander Jones believes the home router market is ripe for a shakeup.

Jones is the founder of Soap, a new product making its way through the crowdfunding community, and he is right when he says that typical home routers are complicated affairs that few people know how to manage and fewer still use to their full potential. While most router companies like Linksys and Belkin have taken steps to make their routers friendlier or at least a little easier to manager, Jones doesn’t think they’ve gone far enough.

The question is, in bringing Soap to life, has Alex Jones gone too far?

VentureBeat spoke with Jones about his original inspiration for Soap; it was his parents. “I wanted to give them a device to help with parental controls. My little brother was getting into trouble online and going to some places he shouldn’t have been.” Jones decided that the problem called for a hardware solution. “We needed a device that the technically non-savvy could use.”

Normally one would expect that the easiest thing to do in this situation would be to offer a really well designed app that could run on a tablet or smartphone and be used to configure all of the router’s functions wirelessly. Jones didn’t think that would cut it. “As easy as that is for most people, for my parents and their generation – they still have a hard time figuring that stuff out.”

Thus, Soap, a tablet-like router with a touch-screen interface, was born. “Soap cleans your Internet,” claims the promotional copy on the Soap Indiegogo page.

It’s not the first time a router has been graced with a touch screen. Securifi launched the Almond back in 2012 to positive reviews. If Jones had stopped there—with the goal of making an even easier-to-use touchscreen router than the Almond, perhaps with a better price—the Soap would be a product with a clear mission and value proposition.

But that’s not what happened.

Apparently—despite his initial interest in helping his parents—Jones began to respond to the influence of the crowdfunding community (and his own strong maker tendencies) and began playing Dr. Frankenstein with the Soap.

It has continued to evolve from its beginnings as a tool for techno-illiterate parents to seize control of their kids’ online activities into something much more. “We kind of had a lot of feature creep,” says Jones.

The Soap that you find on today’s Indiegogo campaign is part router, part Android tablet, part home automation hub and part distributed computing platform. In short, it’s a mess.

Available in four models, six colors and two screen sizes, Soap boasts more configuration options than any tablet on the market. It has HDMI, USB 3.0, USB 2.0, SATAII, mPCIe, RJ45… and that’s before you start counting up the home automation standards it supports: ZigBee, Insteon, Z-Wave, Bluetooth, X-10 “and many more.”

While the base model, the 7-inch Soap Solo, starts at $99, you can quickly work your way up to $550 for the Soap 8.4 Ultimate edition that boasts an 8.4” screen, 512GB SSD hard drive, Soap AV upgrade, battery upgrade and the WiFi upgrade. Have I mentioned all of the available accessories? There are more options on the Soap than a GM vehicle. If Jones ever creates an infomercial for Soap, he’ll need a half hour just for the “but wait, there’s more!” moment.

Then there’s the issue of the design of the hardware itself. Because the Soap is doggedly clinging to its first mission as an intelligent router, it sports five gigabit Ethernet ports along its bottom edge. It also possesses four external antenna-mounting points that stick out like the business end of a tazer. Fairly normal features for a router you might say. But keep in mind; the Soap is also a tablet, complete with a built-in rechargeable battery. Jones fully expects that you will not need or want to leave the Soap tethered to your modem. We call it a Rablet!” he enthuses. Unfortunately, if the battery on your Rablet dies, so too does your connection to the internet.

If it sounds like Soap suffers from split-personality syndrome, you’re right. Even the marketing copy seems to be confused over how people will use the device:

Wireless Gigabit Speeds – With 802.11AC Wi-Fi chipset Soap features wireless gigabit speeds, now you can get faster connections wireless [sic] than you can wired. With this, ethernet cables may become a thing of the past.

Gigabit Ethernet – If you still need to use Ethernet ports, that is not a problem Soap boasts gigabit Ethernet speeds.”

Or as Jones puts it: “We’re trying to give you the tools to remove the wires if you want to.”

We’re now witnessing the emergence of Frankenstein’s monster and we haven’t even discussed Soap’s role as a home automation hub.

When pressed on the question of why people would want Soap, Jones seems to struggle with the product’s vision. At first he discusses the product’s role as a router:

“It’s not just a router. It replaces the router but it doesn’t have to replace the router. The router ability is kind of its secondary thing. […] At first we weren’t even going to replace the router. We decided were going to have a unit that plugs into the router—it still does that, it can totally do that.”

A bit scattered to be sure, however this is an evolving product so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. But then he shifts to a discussion of the target market:

“The people we’re trying to appeal to are the people who don’t like technology. We’re trying to give them the ability to bridge that digital divide between the kids and the parents. We’re just trying to make it as easy as possible.”

Fair enough. But then…

“Then it kind of expanded with the crowdfunding community. We grew the features to what we knew the crowdfunding people were more interested in. Parental controls are not what they are into.”

Confused? Jones is sympathetic, “It is confusing. There’s a lot that it does and a lot of things that it’s capable of doing. […] With our campaign that’s one of the problems; it scares people in terms of its abilities.”

Given Jones’s desire to cater to the whims of his crowdfunding following, you’d expect that they would be fawning over Soap and singing its praises. Strangely, the opposite has happened. Though Jones has supporters, there a lot of detractors too. One journalist even suggested during Soap’s original Kickstarter campaign that the project was a scam. Comments on both Kickstarter and Indiegogo suggest that backers of the project are growing increasingly frustrated by the expanding number of options being made available but little progress on the Soap devices themselves.

Jones suggests that a lot of the negativity is being generated by competitive crowdfunding ventures. It’s not easy getting a new product off the ground and Soap is hardly the first project to suffer a crowdfunding backlash.

“Just to be clear, I WANT the project to succeed, but the original focus doesn’t seem to be there any more,” says a recent commenter on Indiegogo.

Yet Jones appears deaf to reasonable criticism that Soap is growing out of control. Following his passion for devices that use mesh networks to increase their overall computing power and reliability, he touts the fact that multiple Soap devices can leverage this ability. When we asked why someone would want more than one Soap, he said, “When you buy two of these devices they’ll work together as one superior model,” but to our follow-up question of why a router would need to be so powerful in the first place, he replied, “I actually agree with you on that. It’s that these people love these numbers, they love these specs to the teeth. We were trying to appeal to that early adopter.”

So is Jones the driving force behind the ever-expanding set of Soap’s capabilities or is he, as he suggests, merely bending to the will of the early-adopting crowdfunding community who were never the intended target market for the product? Clarity on this point proves elusive.

One thing that is clear however; Jones and Soap are now miles away from their original goal of offering the average parent an easy way of securing their home from vulnerabilities while keeping the kids from surfing the nasty parts of the web. Even the more tangible aspects of the product like increased security become muddled in additional layers of complexity.

The Soap, Jones assures us, is very secure despite using Android 4.4 as its operating system. “Anyone who’s afraid of Android being more vulnerable than their normal router then they need to re-check their idea of what’s vulnerable. Your normal router is a thousand times more vulnerable than Soap,” he says confidently, even though the same version of Android that Soap uses has proven frighteningly vulnerable.

Not convinced that Soap can handle security? Jones thinks you should simply buy a second one. “One Soap device will verify from the other. If you have a network intrusion on one Soap device, it will check with the other and it will say ‘hey that device wasn’t approved the correct way’.” Not exactly the reassurance average parents are looking for.

There’s no question that Jones is passionate about Soap and the seemingly unlimited ways it can improve your digital life. His supporters, both public and private, keep ponying up the cash: The Kickstarter campaign beat its funding goal to the tune of $142,112 while the Indiegogo campaign has had better results at $173,617 with another 27 days to go. Jones even suggested that there “has been interest” from some of the biggest players in the home router space.

But even if everything goes to plan and Soap eventually ends up in the hands of backers, there’s simply no way that Jones’s parents (or any other average user for that matter) will want one. It has become a product that only a real techie could love.

Dr. Frankenstein began his experiment to prove his theory of the reanimation of life, with deadly consequences. Let’s hope Jones’s experiment proves more successful.


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