Today Wired’s new cover story about the Internet of Things was released. I highly recommend you read it as it covers the top layer of technological advancements in the physical world that will come to fruition over the next decade. The piece widely cites SmartThings, a company I am very fond of and have invested in, as a pioneer in the world of IoT (Internet of Things). IoT is imminent. Sensors are being commoditized and makers and hackers are using them to program and automate objects from household coffeemakers to industrial and enterprise manufacturing equipment. We are entering an era where the physical world, or physical graph as SmartThings CEO Alex Hawkinson refers to it, will quickly emerge before our very eyes.
What is most interesting is the way in which the IoT will prevail. There are two very distinct approaches and competing schools of thought. On one side, we have vertically integrated services - products that come pre-packaged with their own hardware and integrated software. Nest is the perfect example. It is a smart and beautiful thermostat designed by ex-Apple employees. It operates in a silo: you use the Nest thermostat (hardware and firmware) and control it using software via the Nest application. The experience is seamless, intuitive, and makes using a thermostat fun. This is identically analogous to the Apple approach - a beautifully designed piece of hardware with intuitive software maintained and used in a siloed and controlled environment.
On the other side we have the open source systems. These are products that are inherently open, meaning any hacker or maker can write programs for and on top of them. These programs are accessible and distributed to other programmers who use and build for the platform, and they can they contribute to those projects as well. The programs become better over time, and the best ones ultimately surface to end-consumers (e.g. If moisture in the lawn falls below a certain level then activate my sprinklers). These systems have strong network effects because the more people who program and use them, the more customizable and useful they become for developers and consumers alike. However, they generally take longer to consumerize as they start by targeting the long-tale of initial makers and hackers who are passionate about building programs for themselves.
SmartThings rests in this category. Their approach, which is fundamentally opposite Nest’s, is to provide a SmartHub (think of a home wifi-router) which connects all the sensors (i.e. anything powered electrically like a coffeepot, stove, thermostat, etc.) in your house via different wireless protocols and gives you an interface on your phone to control and program them all. You can also access programs other developers have written for the system - think of these programs as applications similar to the ones you’d find in the Apple and Android app stores. The genius of SmartThings is that it is completely interoperable with a variety of different electronic equipment (see the growing list here). This enables them to focus on doing one thing exceptionally well: creating the platform to support the world’s Physical Graph. SmartThings also gives you your own sensors so you can connect anything to your SmartThings system (e.g. place them in your basement to detect flood levels or on your windows to detect if they’re open or shut). It can be as DIY and customizable as you want, or as simple as their out of the box solutions.
If Nest’s approach to vertically integrated home automation is analogous to Apple, then SmartThings approach to IoT and their “Physical Graph” is the Android of the programmable world. When it comes to the future, I ideologically support an open and connected one. We will ultimately move towards a physical world of many vertically-integrated and highly specified devices and services, or one based on openness and interconnectedness. In my mind, openness and interconnectivity will always prevail, and that is why it is very important to pay attention to SmartThings and the IoT.