SmartThings, the company behind a connected home hub, is walking the fine line between creating an open ecosystem for connected devices and a user experience that doesn’t make users toss up their hands in frustration. That’s not to say it hasn’t veered off that line in the past, but on Wednesday it is announcing an exit from the sensor business, new partners and a certification and publishing program for developers that will create an app store concept for the connected home. And, it updated it’s iOS app, with plans for the Android refresh coming within the next week or so.
It’s been over a year since I first started talking to CEO Alex Hawkinson about the vision for SmartThings, a vision I personally buy into for the connected home. People don’t care about radios or some sort of unified vision as much as they will want to bring in a long tail of connected devices that works for their needs. And most won’t want to program those devices, but will welcome a series of ready-made applications or recipes that will allow them to take a connected dog collar and set up geo-fencing for the pooch that lets them know when it escapes the yard (but only sends that notification if it isn’t on a walk with you).
As you can see, even a simple task can get overwhelming, which has been my beef with SmartThings and other home automation hubs. But especially SmartThings. From day one, when I first unpacked the sensors and box and realized I needed much more to control, to my day four frustrating search for applications that did what I wanted, the user experience wasn’t there. But subsequent app upgrades exposed more options and helped users find their way to common use cases.
During that same time frame, the company was also pushing its developers to add support for more and more products on the back end, while encouraging super users to play around with their own devices and build support for those as well. The SmartThings integrated developer environment on the back end was open and an easy way to build apps — apps the user never could find. Basically SmartThings was making all the right moves when it came to being open for everyone, and was terrible at exposing the fruits of that openness to anyone.
But now, with the latest update, Hawkinson showed me, that is changing. Both adding devices is easier as is controlling and programming them. Thanks to integrations with GitHub, developers can take their code and submit it instantly for certification. The company also hired Kelly Liang, formerly head of business development for Glass at Google X, to help bring in and communicate with developers. I look forward to downloading the app once I get back from San Francisco and starting to play around with it in my own home.
If SmartThings were able to nail the challenge of building an open but user-friendly experience for the smart home, that would be huge for the adoption of its products. There are signs that it’s working. Although Hawkinson didn’t share how many devices are out in the market (our last stat was 10,000 in November) he did say it was growing at between 10 and 20 percent sold per month. He also shared some data about the users, which offers up evidence that people are finding the product easier to play with.
In the past six months, the number of times the average customer opens the app per day has grown from 1 to 4, and subscribed push notifications have grown from 5 to 15 per customer. Personally, this is not a win because I hate looking at screens. The average number of connected devices per household has grown from 5 to 10. Developer and device maker activity on the SmartThings back end has also grown with 1,900 new devices and 2,300 SmartApps (what SmartThings calls its recipes) created on the platform within the past 90 days.
Finally, the company is announcing support for more than 100 new devices including the UP24 fitness tracker by Jawbone, Centralite sensors, Leviton, lighting control products and even apps like Life360, which allows you to view your family members on a map and communicate with them. There will still be hiccups in the platform, especially for older users who may find that their old devices will still remain stuck in the Labs section unless they manually move them or possibly re-install.
I can’t wait to try it, and am really excited to see where SmartThings goes as mainstream consumers take a look at this space. There is plenty of competition out there from companies like Revolv, NinjaSphere, Nexia, Insteon, iControl, Staples, and Lowes. Plus, more challengers are coming. Google’s purchase of Nest introduced a big competitor and validated the market. I expect other big names to enter the business this year. So, for SmartThings, figuring out how to hold this balance while the market is young may help it survive.