A Smart Home Divided Cannot Stand. This Hub Can Help
Call it the Internet of Things, call it the smart home, call it a sign of the imminent robot takeover. Whatever it is, it’s coming to connect your light bulbs, locks, thermostats, fridges, and everything else, to your phone and to the Internet. And Alex Hawkinson, CEO of SmartThings, is pretty sure he’s going to be right smack in the middle of it all.
Today, at the IFA conference in Berlin, Hawkinson announced the second version of the SmartThings platform. It comes with a new hub, new devices, a new app, and new tools for developers to connect to the SmartThings ecosystem. This is a big moment for the company, one Hawkinson calls “the big scale-up.”
The difference between SmartThings and its ever-increasing list of competitors—you may have heard of a few of them, like Google and Apple and Wink and Amazon and on and on and on—is that SmartThings is totally committed to being open to everyone. Hawkinson says over and over that he didn’t sell to Samsung to become a HomeKit competitor, to make things that would only work if you use Samsung lightbulbs and Samsung washing machines. “The initial vision is still the same,” he says. “Somebody’s got to make it easy enough for everyday people, and the right move here is a totally open platform.” Sure, you’ll start to see SmartThings built into a lot of Samsung products soon, but Hawkinson is hell-bent on remaining the Switzerland of the smart home world.
“It’s been a year since the acquisition,” Hawkinson reminds me. “Since we bought Samsung, in an incredible reverse-dilutive acquisition.” He’s kidding, of course, though it was about a year ago that Samsung bought Hawkinson’s smart home company for a reported $200 million. SmartThings has been quiet since the acquisition, working to upgrade its systems and integrate into the hulking behemoth that is Samsung. All while working on a complete redesign of its whole product.
SmartThings also got a new office in the Samsung deal—a huge, ornate space in Palo Alto that its new parent company evidently just wasn’t using. Just inside the front door, they’ve rigged up a kitchen full of connected gadgets, which Hawkinson manipulates alternately from a Samsung Galaxy Note 5 (synergy!) and an iPhone 6. He also uses an Amazon Echo at one point, which now supports SmartThings.
Part of SmartThings’ goal was to make connecting your home easier than ever. Starting in early October, you’ll be able to buy a home monitoring kit, which comes with a hub and a handful of sensors that will get you a long way toward a basic home-security, is-my-house-still-standing setup. Stick a motion sensor on the door, a moisture sensor near the water heater, plug in the hub, and you’re done.
The new hub is the most powerful piece of the equation. It’s dramatically more powerful, and can now run offline as well, meaning if you lose power your home can still execute on its commands. If you have your water set to turn off when the temperature gets below freezing, and Comcast craps out at just the wrong moment, you’ll still be OK. And thanks to the AA batteries inside the hub that Hawkinson says will run for ten hours. It supports video for the first time, partnering with Samsung’s home monitoring camera and others to show you clips when something happens you should see. It’s not like, say, the Nest cam, where you can access footage from any time; this, like all SmartThings products, just waits to tell you when something’s happening.
The companion app has been totally redesigned to let you control things by room, or by need, instead of having to dig through each and every sensor individually. Now, you can quickly check in on your garage, and you’ll know all in one glance that everything’s OK. It turns out that’s what most people want from their connected home: just to know if everything’s OK. If you do want to get deeper and nerdier about it all—which Hawkinson says is a small but growing group of people—you can program complicated macros in the app so that the whole environment can change automatically with your every action.
Developers can make these, too, and they can even create mini-apps within the SmartThings app that give you more granular control over a portion of your home. Part of SmartThings’ goal, and part of Hawkinson’s challenge, is giving developers as many tools as possible without making the whole thing too complicated for regular people.
On one hand, the company’s wholeheartedly embraced Github, basically turning SmartThings into a hacker platform. Hawkinson imagines a world where you might buy a separate hub for doing really deep stuff, with even more power and flexibility. “Call it, I don’t know, Super Smart Things.” (He just came up with that, and he likes it.) On the other, its certification program has selected 200 devices that it swears will work with SmartThings straight out of the box. And unlike, say, Apple’s HomeKit, SmartThings doesn’t actually make getting that sticker very hard.
“Some of these are Wi-Fi devices,” Hawkinson says. “Some are Zigbee, some are Z-Wave. In the future, it’s Thread, it’s whatever. We tried to just say, you don’t have to worry about it because we’ll support anything that has this stamp on it.” He can’t support HomeKit, probably ever, which annoys him—he says Apple has security requirements that are both complicated and unnecessary, and he can’t be as open and inviting as he wants to be with so many extra requirements. But everything else might be fair game.
There are two camps in the smart-home game right now. On one side, companies like Google and Apple, which are inventing new standards and throwing their weight around to get everyone’s support. But then there’s SmartThings, along with companies like Wink, which just say “sure, we’ll support everything.” Of those, none have the power and distribution SmartThings assured itself by joining rank with Samsung. As Hawkinson stood in the faux kitchen, turning on the lights, triggering a moisture sensor that shut off the water, turning a horribly annoying alarm on and off, I found myself thinking about what a company like Samsung offers a company like SmartThings. Marketing budget, for sure. Factories and manufacturing efficiencies, too.
But then, sitting in the conference room in their gorgeously vintage office, Hawkinson points at the TV on the wall. A Samsung, of course. “We can embed our hub in other things now, and there’s been some work to make that happen,” he says. “Where you buy an X,” and here he points at the TV again, “and it is a hub. And you turn it on, and it’s like oh, it’s SmartThings enabled. That’s cool!” Samsung makes a few of the things we’d currently think of as smart-home devices, but it also makes a ridiculous number of connected things. Refrigerators, TVs, dishwashers, you name it—every year, Samsung’s cavernous CES booth becomes more and more like the world’s smartest home.
Eventually, Hawkinson figures, SmartThings won’t need to make hardware. Samsung is pretty good at that. So he’ll get to focus on keeping the platform open, and encouraging people to build for it. His pitch is so compelling: support anything you want, build it any way you want, just build it right and we’ll make sure it works.
He’s thinking a lot about pool sensors right now. He just bought a new house, with a pool, and is worried about his 5-year-old. “It’s not like Samsung or Apple or Google are going to build a pool sensor anytime soon,” he says. “Because it’s a sliver of the market. But it’s a really relevant part of the market, too.” His job, then, is to give someone everything they need so they can just build a sensor and plug it in.
“We want to be the easiest way for normal people to turn their home into a smart home,” Hawkinson says. He has a soft spot for the hacker stuff, though, showing me funny macros he’s trying to set up to turn off the TV when his wife opens the garage door, so that the kids won’t get in trouble for watching too much. He’s focused on moving in both directions—easy and powerful—and giving all the tools to everyone he possible can.
Just for good measure, a few days later, someone purchased supersmartthings.com. Now it redirects to the SmartThings website.