Before Google was a verb, there was a dividing line on the Web: Internet browsers on one side, and Web sites on the other. Browsers made accessing Web sites possible, but only if you knew (and remembered) the right URL address.
There's now a similar gap between apps that connect physical objects, and the objects themselves. There may be a way to control your garage opener, thermostat or home lighting system via an online service, but only if you know the application intended for that purpose.
SmartThings wants to be the connective tissue between physical objects and Internet apps. As more devices are networked together, people will need a new way to relate to these objects and put the Internet of Things to work in practical ways. This is the challenge that drives SmartThings CEO Alex Hawkinson. He asks, "How do we bring the benefits of this technology wave to the average household?"
Hawkinson started developing the SmartThings concept in late 2011 when he needed to solve the relatively simple problem of how to monitor his family's Colorado home from a distance. After his house suffered major damage from pipes that first froze and then burst while the family was out of town, Hawkinson built a solution that paired water and electricity sensors with software that would inform him when a problem occurred.
He had a prototype system working within a few months. And then the Eureka moment hit: Even as Hawkinson solved his own immediate dilemma, he realized there was a much larger issue that needed tackling. One-off solutions for connecting devices to an online interface were popping up with increasing regularity, but there was still an opportunity "to create a cloud and app program that could bring things together."
For him, that was a challenge worth building a business around.
Hawkinson founded Physical Graph Corporation, which gave birth to the SmartThings brand, with three principles in mind. First, he wanted the company's technology to be easy enough for anyone to use. Second, he believed the SmartThings platform needed to reside in the cloud, rather than as software on individual devices. Third and finally, Hawkinson wanted the technology to be open.
"Our initial plan was actually… to build a beta of the platform, and… do a pilot with a telco," he says. "And we realized that would sort of defeat the purpose of the open platform."
Today, SmartThings sells hardware directly to consumers including a hub device and several sensor products that bundle with the company's platform and mobile apps. SmartThings is also creating complete kits tailored to specific use cases like home security and energy management. Its Starter kits are priced starting at $199 on Amazon.com.
More importantly, however, the company has used its open platform to bring together a community of device makers and app developers. They're all working toward a common goal: creating compatible and easily accessible solutions for the new Internet of Things. SmartThings isn't interested in being the only solution provider in the market. Instead, the company would rather provide an enabling platform that allows anyone to innovate with their own connected devices and experiences.
Someday, SmartThings may get out of the hardware market altogether.
Says Hawkinson, "I think we'll be producing hubs for a couple of years, and then probably just recede into being the cloud app and user experience platform."
SmartThings has made remarkable progress in a short period of time. Nearly 4,000 developers arebuilding applications on the software platform, and well-known hardware brands including GE and Schlage are offering compatible devices in the SmartThings online store. Hawkinson says the plan is to continue marketing products online to early adopters, but also to sell SmartThings solutions through large-scale service channels.
Hawkinson's goal is to reach a million households during the next 18 months. The products people buy may vary, but if everything goes according to plan, new connected devices will increasingly be powered by the SmartThings platform. In the future, it could be the virtual glue that connects the online world to our physical reality.
(Photo courtesy of SmartThings)