Is location sharing a path into the smart home?

If having a third party app track your location via your smart phone 24 hours a day creates an instantaneous creepy factor reaction, consider that location sharing app Life360 is nearing 50 million families using its app.

Now the key word in that sentence is “families.” While you probably don’t want a dating app or a typical social media network like Facebook or LinkedIn keeping tabs on your location and continuously broadcasting that location, if you’re a parent knowing where your child is has a lot of value. Kids and the occasional cheating spouse may not be thrilled about the app, but on balance, there’s enough value in using tracking within the closed family network of the app that fewer than 3 percent of app users turn off the tracking once they begin using the app.

And in contrast to social media networking, Life360 CEO Chris Hulls noted to me that their strategy has always been geared toward utility and “coordination, communication and safety versus fun and social.” It’s an interesting comment to me because as I look out at the smart home, I’ve always been biased towards products that create security and peace of mind like smartlocks and cloud video surveillance, particularly if the products fall into the category of products that don’t create a direct ROI (energy savings, money) for the consumer like a smart thermostat does.

Speaking of security, home security systems leader ADT was the lead investor for Life360’s recent $50 million series C round. While many are absorbed with smarthub acquisitions like Samsung’s $200 million purchase of hub startup SmartThings or the quick growth of Nest, one can overlook the fact that older companies like ADT are already in 6 million homes and businesses. Presumably a company like ADT would be in an ideal situation to sell a suite of smart home services like energy management, connected thermostats and lighting, even health monitoring. And ADT is trying to do just that.

But companies like ADT are also at risk as great mobile design and software development are not its core competency. Those security user experiences that create peace of mind are being pealed off by the likes of Dropcam which are more skilled at building user experiences around software. Additionally, one of the historical problems for security companies is disengagement, folks who tire of having to consistently arm their homes as they come and go. More generally, it’s just not a very engaging consumer experience, entering codes and arming doors, particularly when smartphones have created an expectation of flawless and smart engagement.

ADT is aware of the changing landscape and its investment in Life360 signals the reality that a traditional company like ADT must find a way to engage users on mobile. To that end, Life360 will soon integrate features into the app that allow users to control smart home features like security and thermostat settings as well as allow for automated security functions depending on Life360 knowing where its users are.

Life360’s location sharing strategy suggests a different thread to the conversation about the smart home. It’s becoming evident that platforms will become as important if not more than hardware design in the smart home, regardless of Nest’s individual breakout design. Making the disparate smart home applications like lighting, security and thermostats work together and reaching a mass audience requires very strong consumer engagement at scale. Companies like Life360, which have no hardware, are looking to build engagement first and then use that engagement as a tool to bring people into smart homes and connected cars.

Will it work? We can say that we’ve seen that it can be difficult to move from hardware to selling more add on home services as it’s not just ADT that is trying this approach but the telcos like Time Warner, which already have presences and hardware in so many homes and are attempting to sell add on services like home energy management.

But going at it from the other direction—starting with a strong software platform, then encouraging the networking of hardware in the home—is a compelling alternative approach. Time will tell but it’s reasonable to assume that at the very least companies that have been built as mobile apps from day 1 will have the internal culture to focus on user experience in the home. And that can’t be bad.