The future of SmartThings

It may have been possible to dismiss Google’s $3.2 billion acquisition of Nest as a one off purchase based upon the standout design and functionality of a sleek product and not necessarily proof that the internet of things was a major market opportunity.

But the IoT got another vote of confidence last week when Samsung acquired hub maker SmartThings for a reported $200 million. SmartThings has an app and an open API that controls a range of devices, from locks to thermostats, in the home by having all those devices interface with its multi radio hub. It is one of many attempts to control the device fragmentation that the internet of things is spurring.

The immediate question in this deal is how open SmartThings will remain. The hub maker had prided itself on bringing developers in, presenting an open API that would allow them to create new apps that integrated functionality across multiple devices, and generally embraced a device agnostic position.

This outlook is not one typically shared by most hardware makers. Earlier this year Samsung launched its smart home foray with an app service that controls appliances that include a fridge, washing machine, and a smart TV. The criticism of course was that this is a close system. Who wants an app for the home that only works with Samsung equipment?

One doesn’t have to go much farther than the comments on SmartThings CEO Alex Hawkinson’s blog post announcing the deal to see how the community of SmartThings customers are taking the news. Fears ranged from worry that Samsung would force SmartThings to stop plans to support iOS and HomeKit to fears that a monthly service charge would soon be in the pipeline.

Hawkinson, to his credit, responded to these complaints with the same mantra—that SmartThings would “remain completely open.” He also noted that SmartThings “always intend to maintain and enhance the free service, even as premium services and apps emerge from the marketplace.”

So what does the future really look like? Many onlookers, including myself, saw Samsung’s initial smart home play as a little crazy because only being able to access Samsung products through their app is incredibly limiting. The entire value proposition of the smart home is interoperability and the chance to easily visualize and control all of the devices in your home. Closed systems make that impossible.

Even Apple, the mother of all closed, proprietary hardware and software systems, appears to understand this. Its HomeKit is an attempt to embed control of smart home devices in iOS 8 and to certify third party devices as compatible with iOS. (Many Apple fans are still clamoring for Apple to turn the Apple TV into a hub. That would involve some internal hardware upgrades but isn’t impossible.)

And despite its previous move, I think Samsung may actually realize that the only way forward in the smart home is through an open ecosystem. It announced in July that it would join ARM, Nest and others in building a new radio standard for the smart home called Thread. The idea was to bring a standard networking protocol to ZigBee, which is not as power hungry as Wi-Fi, an issue in an expanding world of portable and connected devices.

Then Samsung goes and acquires a a device agnostic hub maker for a sizable price, given the relatively small size of SmartThings’ reported user base. And puts it in Samsung’s Open Innovation Center.

I’m not saying it’s beyond Samsung to destroy SmartThings. Others have pointed out that that is exactly what it did to Boxee, which it ultimately shut down. But I also think there’s another possible vision here in which Samsung attempts to use the open nature of SmartThings’ platform to become a leading brand that is looked to to control the smart home. It would allow for excellent integration with Samsung products and other products with the potential to reap the rewards of being at the center of that ecosystem with access to things like data on how many people are using home devices.

Time will tell. For now, SmartThings will run as an independent company within Samsung. As for what things will look like in 3 years, that is undoubtedly up to Samsung.

The latest to target the smart energy home: Time Warner Cable

The 2012 CES show hasn’t even officially kicked off and already the smart energy home has emerged as a key target for a variety of sectors, including telcos, big box retailers, startups, chip companies and now cable operators like Time Warner Cable.