Alex Hawkinson, the CEO of SmartThings, wants to keep the company’s smart home platform open and will continue developing for iOS and Apple’s HomeKit effort after agreeing to a purchase by Samsung.
The news of the reported $200 million deal (in an interview Friday, Hawkinson wouldn’t comment on the price) set off a lot of worry among developers and customers fearing that Samsung would shut the service down after gutting it for expertise or parts. But while Hawkinson is aware that most people will have to wait for the company’s actions before accepting that Samsung could be a beneficial acquirer, he is adamant that SmartThings is still committed to the same vision of an open, inclusive smart home platform that it has had since day one.
“The proof is going to be in the pudding,” he said. “The vision is still the same. To be completely easy for the consumer and open and be the most open over time. And they have my personal guarantee and that this is absolutely the mission and vision going forward.”
This deal was about scale
He explained that while the discussion between Samsung and SmartThings originally began in May as a partnership agreement after SmartThings opened up its developer program, it progressed quickly to acquisition talks, where SmartThings really “dug in” on the issue of openness, Hawkinson said. He said the sale also had nothing to do with the marked increase in competitive offerings from major retailers and even from Apple and Google.
“It wasn’t in my mind to sell at all,” Hawkinson said. “We’ve had lots of access to capital through Greylock and Highland, and felt very good about seeing all boats rise and felt very good about the independent path. I feel like we are solving problems and that there are universal human needs around people’s homes that we are solving. … This wasn’t about financials for me even though those are great. It was about and is about this partnership. I believe we can truly solve problems for more people and do it for hundreds of millions of consumers around the world.”
That means the sale was about scale. I agree with Hawkinson that the deal is good for SmartThings provided it keeps its independence. I’ve always been a big believer in Hawkinson’s vision for building out support for all connected objects and giving developers the tools to write apps that bring any types of objects together. As the number of devices proliferates, I’m not sure that the approach can scale as opposed to the implementation of a more universal standard, but at least Samsung gives SmartThings the resources to try to keep up with the tsunami of devices to support.
Keeping developers happy
There’s a huge market here but most of the industry seems to believe the opportunity is based on the platform-centric, app store model that dominates the mobile phone ecosystem. If that’s the case then SmartThings would find itself trying to win over both developers and customers while competing against much larger providers, with the idea that more customers attracts developers and more awesome applications would attract more customers. That’s tough for a two-year-old startup to do, but so far SmartThings has done well.
For example, despite the customer and developer worries listed on SmartThings’ blog post about the deal, I reached out to others who were optimistic. Nathan Cauffman, the founder of the company building the Eve Irrigation Controller that will link exclusively to SmartThings, emailed me the following:
This only validates our decision to partner with SmartThings. SmartThings has always been passionate about the open platform, and based on my interaction with them, I have no doubt that they will continue to support that principle. A lot of people have expressed concern that Samsung will stifle innovation, but I think that much of the true innovation will come from third-party developers. SmartThings needs to attract developers by obtaining market share – and Samsung will definitely help them achieve that. I think this is great for SmartThings and puts them in the same playing field as the emerging giants in home automation.
Leor Grebler, the CEO of Unified Computer Intelligence Corp., which makes the Ubi voice activated computer that is integrated with SmartThings, was very practical about the deal. He was excited to see a fellow startup succeed and also noted that it is early days in what everyone thinks will be a huge market. “I think we’re still in the Wild West for connected devices and over the next few years we’ll see more consolidation,” he said in response to my email. “Google bought Nest, Apple is going the HomeKit route. Samsung knows it needs to get in to stay relevant.”
Prying open Samsung’s standards
That’s true, and since Samsung has chosen SmartThings, my hope is that it recognizes that if it wants to be in this space and play for keeps it has to be open. Until now, Samsung has been pretty focused on creating brand-specific experiences where your Samsung phone could shift songs to your Samsung TV or your Samsung watch. I’ve long said that is unrealistic, especially in the home where people buy a variety of devices at different times and brand is just one of many considerations.
Hawkinson agrees. “Clearly the closed model doesn’t work. If Tony [Fadell, the CEO of Nest] couldn’t keep it closed no one can,” he joked.
And if SmartThings’ open DNA can influence Samsung, while also getting access to expertise from Samsung’s mobile, appliance, television and other businesses, that will only lead to a better customer experience. Hawkinson pointed out that Samsung has also been opening up in the last few months. There’s the Open Innovation Center that SmartThings will be a part of, but there’s also Samsung’s involvement in the Thread wireless networking protocol with Nest, Freescale and other vendors. He added that SmartThings would support Nest over time as well.
Wait and see
Clearly, we’re a long way off from seeing how this acquisition affects SmartThings. Hawkinson promises an updated product road map before the end of the year. Maybe he’ll share something big when he speaks at our Structure Connect event in October. But until then, he’s preaching openness in interviews and in a steady stream of responses to commenters on his company’s site. He’s also assuring developers and customers that the free services they currently enjoy will remain free and will perhaps expand thanks to Samsung’s support. Since SmartThings has been very clear that it hopes to make money buy creating an app store of sorts and sharing in that revenue, an assurance of the freemium model is good to hear for both customers and developers.
Finally, he didn’t get into products we might expect, but he has been hinting at better location and brought that up again in our call. “Clearly there is a lot of opportunity creating richer and easier to use experiences and that starts with mobile devices,” he said. “Samsung ships one in three smartphones so while we will support all clients, the chance to go deep and nail things like location without draining the battery is really exciting.”
As a longtime SmartThings user, it is exciting. I’m looking forward to see how this plays out.