ReadWriteHome is an ongoing series exploring the implications of living in connected homes.
If the smart-home market is like the Wild West, then we may be heading for a showdown, with a range of competitors all polishing up their spurs. One noteworthy contender is SmartThings, a company that waged a popular Kickstarter campaign two years ago and has since emerged as an outspoken evangelist for today’s smart home movement.
Its weapon of choice in the battle to connect our houses? Developers.
SmartThings, which recently overhauled the mobile app that serves as a control center for the smart home, made sure to put developers front and center. Among the new features it unveiled is what Alex Hawkinson, the company’s CEO and founder, calls “the first app store” for the smart home.
That might be fortuitous timing. Apple—the originator of the app store model—may be about to announce its own foray into the connected home, reportedly by making it easier for people to control their smart gadgets via iPhones and iPads. So the battle of the smart-home app stores could be in the offing.
An App Store … That Isn’t Really A Store
Hawkinson says his company’s app store is the “next evolution” of its SmartThings Labs—a testing program that allows software developers to play with its APIs and other development tools. Now, many of those experiments and creative features are officially going live to the public.
If you have a Jawbone UP24, for example, it can tell your home when you’ve woken up, triggering your coffee maker, speakers and lights to turn on. You could tell your Ecobee smart thermostat to warm up your apartment automatically at 7am in the morning. Or set your Kwikset deadbolt to lock automatically whenever you leave.
The company wants to ensure an ever-expanding array of uses for the SmartThings system, so it’s giving developers and product makers a new pathway to reach end users—although there is some potential for confusion. This “app store” isn’t really a store, and the items don’t look like the apps we’re used to seeing in our smartphones.
There’s no dedicated application storefront. Users gain access by tapping a “plus” sign in the SmartThings app and entering a multipurpose new SmartSetup area. And once there, people don’t download apps packaged up under pretty, squared-off icons. They find features by searching specific functions or browsing categories like device type, gadget name or lifestyles.
Another distinction: Developers don’t charge for software. Transactions only happen when people shop for products—which, not incidentally, they can now do directly within the SmartThings app.
By streamlining the layout and focusing on features, Hawksinson wanted to make the SmartThings app easier for people to use while also showcasing the innovations of its developer community. The latter is important to SmartThings. It likes to tout the platform’s openness, crediting this trait with drawing in more than 5,000 developers over the past year.
Labs was their playground. But while anyone could develop on SmartThings, only a select group could actually publish their work. “We launched our developer tools in May 2013,” Hawkinson said. “When they signed up, they got a sandbox environment—just my apps, my environment.” This allowed the devs to play with the APIs and device handlers that allow their software and hardware work with SmartThings’ technology, without subjecting customers to buggy or ill-conceived projects.
It’s a methodology the company still uses. And, even with the new mobile app, there are still experimental Labs features for early adopting users to try out—only now they reside alongside a spate of company-approved, third-party software.
“There are multiple levels of certification,” Hawkinson said when I asked him about the selection process. “There’s Labs, which is community verified. And then there’s ‘works with SmartThings,’ which is what the company certifies.” Essentially, devs can freely test their applications or authorize specific devices, but they can’t post anything for general use without SmartThings’ approval.
Racing To Meet The Future
Developer innovation is only one part of the puzzle. Ease of use is also crucial, and its one key reason SmartThings redesigned its mobile app.
The new version lets people add new devices manually or via auto-detection, along with the ability to shop for more than 100 compatible hardware products without leaving the app. (The purchase page calls up Amazon, SmartThings and other online stores.) Products cover well-known or popular items like Quirky+GE Pivot Power Genius, Dropcam Pro, Kwikset locks, Philips and Jawbone UP, among others.
I’ve been seeing greater integration with wearables and smart homes, so it’s no surprise to see Jawbone UP there. “We’re really expanding from fitness and sleep to a much broader category of lifestyle, [including] pets, cars, homes, etc,” said Gwen Smith of Jawbone, whose UP24 band is a SmartThings featured product.
Smart homes and wrist tech, like bands and smartwatches, are rapidly finding ways to work together. Enthusiasts wax poetic about the ability to unlock doors, turn off lights and set thermostats right from the wrist.
But SmartThings has other plans up its sleeves. In the future, Hawkinson imagines broadening his company’s scope to include real-life services—like installer networks, human surveillance and other professional offerings. This would cover ongoing help for people who want or need it, all with a few taps in the mobile app.
“That could be someone who comes to your home, to assess your space for things you need to install,” he said. “Or you could tap a button in the app to call in a locksmith or a plumber.”
Heading Straight Into The Wild, Wild West
These new features and new products, along with greater ease of use, could be a killer combination for SmartThings—or any smart home provider, for that matter. Because none of the major players in this growing area have yet nailed a comprehensive set of sales points for a mass audience.
Revolv, SmartThings’ arch rival, has been staking its claim on ease of use. Unsurprisingly, it has some choice words for its competitor’s latest updates: “We work with popular and trusted brands to ensure a seamless integrated experience for consumers that doesn’t require complicated third-party apps to download or technical expertise of setting up various doo-dads to get it to work,” said Mike Soucie, co-founder of Revolv. He’s not wrong. I’ve tried Revolv’s “smart home in a box” myself, and I can attest to its dead-simple setup and control features.
Insteon—the established player whose connected home technology blends wired and wireless technology—touts reliability. iControl (ADT, cable providers) promotes customer service, and along with Zonoff (Staples), they both emphasize the peace of mind that comes from having big-name companies tied to their technologies.
SmartThings, for its part, has gained a reputation for being an innovative platform, a geeky place for hackers to get creative. Now it’s aiming to stake a much larger claim. Defending it won’t be easy, particularly if Apple gets into the game. Then again, life on the frontier never is—especially when there are gunslingers all around you.
The new SmartThings apps are only available in the US and Canada, though the company expects to release them in other countries in the coming months. The iOS app is available now, while the Android version will become available by early June.
Images courtesy of SmartThings.