Hello, Galaxy house: Why your smart home is Samsung's next big thing
BERLIN — Samsung is gunning for your wrist and your home — and those aren’t mutually exclusive.
The South Korean consumer electronics giant on Thursday showed off the Gear S2, its seventh smartwatch in two years but first since late 2014. Earlier that day, it unveiled its AddWash Internet-connected washing machine that includes a small door to let you add forgotten items like socks, a SleepSense sleep tracker you slip under your mattress to track your rest and the second-generation SmartThings home automation hub and sensors.
At first glance, those items may seem to have little in common. But they’re all part of Samsung’s aim to touch every aspect of our lives, from mobile devices to appliances, and to tie them all together.
For Samsung, the Gear S2, and its appliances and smart-home products aren’t just about selling more of its Galaxy smartphones or any of the new products themselves. They’re part of a bigger, longer-term push by Samsung to provide the hardware, software and services that make our homes smarter. The so-called Internet of Things is the notion that everything around you can talk and work together. It aims to make life easier, letting you do things like close your garage door while you’re away from home and get notifications from your refrigerator that you’re out of milk. It’s the potential next growth engine as the broader smartphone market begins to sputter.
The linchpin of that strategy is the watch, which explains why Samsung has tried so hard to get into this business. Many of those household functions, Samsung hopes, will be controlled by the smart gadget you wear on your wrist, which is easier to keep track of than a smartphone. People may not carry their phones with them constantly when they’re at home, but they’re likely to wear a watch throughout the day. The promise is that once the smartwatch apps are more refined, you’ll be able to do things much more quickly and seamlessly.
“We see the Gear as being a great piece in that journey of [the Internet of Things],” Richard Knight, head of global product management for Samsung in Europe, said in an interview. “It’s all about discoverability and usability. Even pulling your phone out to unlock your door is already too much.”
To that end, the new SmartThings home-automation hub will sync with the Gear S2 to send alerts to your wrist and let you check things at home, such as door locks and the thermostat. Samsung’s new “Car Mode for Galaxy” app lets Volkswagen drivers use touch or voice commands to take calls, control music, get directions and listen to text messages out loud.
Samsung isn’t the only one trying to control your wrist and home. Apple, Google and other companies too want a piece of those markets. Devices compatible with HomeKit, Apple’s software to connect everyday objects with its products, have started to launch. One of the major features it pushes with the Apple Watch is doing things like controlling lighting in a home or closing garage doors remotely.
“Wearables and IOT are the two areas that vendors have identified as the next potential big computing markets,” Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart said. Device makers “either see them as complementary to a successful mobile business, or, for vendors who are struggling, a potential new market where the leaders are not yet entrenched.”
Analyst firm Gartner predicts that the number of networked devices will surge to 25 billion units by 2020 from about 900 million in 2009, turning formerly “dumb” objects into “smart” ones that can communicate with each other. The firm also believes vendors will ship 60 million smartwatches in 2016, up from 2 million in 2013.
Samsung emphasizes that it’s “open,” which means its appliances and smart-home hub, created by the SmartThings startup it acquired last year, will work with non-Samsung devices. The company doesn’t believe consumers will buy all Samsung appliances, and it wants to be sure that a smart device works with its system, no matter who made that device.
“There are three things we want to give to consumers: peace of mind, control and flexibility,” Alex Hawkinson, CEO of SmartThings, said Thursday during Samsung’s press conference at the IFA electronics show here.
Samsung faces plenty of hurdles to achieving a true smart world. It may want all of its devices to talk to each other, but its own businesses have long been kept separate. The TV unit, for instance, doesn’t interact much with the smartphone operations. That means each business unit pushes its best interests instead of creating products that work with each other.
Samsung tried to change that by creating the Media Solutions Center, a group tasked with developing software and services that work across and tie together its various devices. Its products included the WatchOn app that turned mobile devices into TV remotes and guides. But most software created by the group has been quietly discontinued by Samsung in current devices. In the US, it has merged its mobile and electronics businesses.
Another challenge: Software has never been Samsung’s strong suit. That’s a big reason it bought SmartThings last year.
For now, neither the smart-home nor wearables markets is big enough to be much of a money maker for Samsung. “The reality is that both markets are so niche in nature at the moment that neither is really going to spark the other,” Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson said.
Samsung’s hope is that the situation changes — and it will be ready when it does.
“The smartwatch is still very much a ‘nice-to-have’ product,” Yoon C. Lee, a Samsung vice president tasked with developing new products, like SleepSense, said in an interview. “If and when all those products are connected and some of the custom conveniences are readily available on the wrist and you can take immediate action, maybe it has this magical moment where people think, ‘I don’t want to give up this convenience.'”