SmartThings founder sees a limitless Internet of Things

Washington D.C. startup seeks to be the platform in a high-stakes race to shape the Internet of Things

WASHINGTON -- The idea that sparked the start-up SmartThings was a personal disaster.

The family of Alex Hawkinson, CEO and founder of Smart Things, owns a mountain house in Colorado. It's a getaway for skiing and hiking. In the winter of 2011, its pipes froze and burst, possibly the result of a power outage. Once electricity was restored the water began flowing again, causing so much damage that the drywall was coming down.

Alex Hawkinson, CEO and founder of Smart Things.

A nearby handyman could have quickly shut off the water had Hawkinson known. It seemed crazy to him that you can know the status of a friend on Facebook but are unable to know what's going on inside your own home.

Two years later, in an old mill building along a canal in the Georgetown section of Washington, Hawkinson is producing a platform and devices for creating an intelligent, connected and controllable home.

SmartThings builds a hub that connects to a home router and to sensors that can detect states like motion, moisture, temperature, or presence, such as the comings and goings of pets. But more important, it's building an open development platform for independent developers and device makers developing tools for the Internet of Things.

For instance, in SmartThings offices, a Sonos wireless speaker suddenly blares with the sound of a barking dog. It sounds very real. A developer created a connection between a door bell and a virtual guard dog that will bark if no one is home.

Why stop at a barking dog?

The wireless speaker can be linked to network enabled smoke detector, which can be used to help spread the alarm and even relay pre-recorded instructions to a child in an emergency.

The possibilities expand creatively.

You wake up, walk into kitchen, where a motion detector senses your presence and knows, because you gave an audible 'good morning' signal to your smart phone, that it's time for you start getting ready for work. A weather app announces the forecast over the speaker and then shifts to the type of music you like at that hour. All are integrated into the SmartThing's app platform.

"Sonos would have never imagined that use case, but it's made possible by the developer community," said Hawkinson.

A motion sensor signals lighting controls as well as prompts a connected thermostat to behave differently as rooms empty or fill. Lights can be programmed to shut off when you leave the house as connected doors automatically lock, and security apps turn on.

Someone taking care of an elderly parent can use the motion sensor to help determine whether the parent's motion patterns are normal or not.

Manufacturers are making network-enabling ordinary products for wired and wireless communications. The SmartThings Hub supports Wifi, as well as Z-Wave and ZigBee, two low-power communication protocols.

The wireless support enables developers to connect one device to another to create new functionality around unrelated products, such as doorbell and the wireless speaker.

All these apps can be integrated into SmartThings platform.

There are about 1,000 devices that can use the platform today, and with its developers, SmartThings has formed a community of about 5,000 so far, said Hawkinson.

The world "almost becomes programmable in this new way that people didn't expect," he said.

Hawkinson grew up in Minneapolis, went to Carnegie Mellon to study cognitive science, and in the mid-1990s headed to Washington D.C. for a development job that combined his interest in computer science and neuroscience, the two disciplines that underpin cognitive science.

He later went on to work independently, beginning with a Web consultancy. His wife was in grad school at a local university and loved the Washington area, and it's been their home ever since.

In a city that is mostly suit-and-tie, the dress code in SmartThings offices is Silicon Valley casual. It all fits into the open office of wood, glass, light, white boards and tables filled with devices. There's nothing separating employees in this collegial and focused place, which is in contrast to D.C.'s cubicle-centric culture.

But the seemingly relaxed atmosphere belies its intense mission and stakes.

Hawkinson believes that there will be just one or two Internet of Things platforms that take off, platforms like his that provide a means for building apps to control the physical world.

Other companies trying to create a central cloud platform for the connected world could be integration opportunities for SmartThings -- or competition. But open standards is the key.

Google's direction in the Internet of Things and openess is getting much industry attention.

It recently bought thermostat maker Nest and has made available an unofficial API, which is good sign it's headed in an open direction.

Hawkinson said he can only speculate on Google's long-term strategy, but suspects Google intends is to use Nest to penetrate a lot of households and then broaden it out with more connected products. Google's stance toward open standards has generally been good. If that friendliness to open source shifts, it could be problem for the Internet of Things.

Hawkinson is hoping that his platform can win enough acceptance with developers, device makers and consumers to create a network effect and drive adoption.

The initial interest of consumers entering this physically connected world is in the things that concern them the most. Not surprisingly, it's the type of thing that helped Hawkinson realize the possibilities of the Internet of Thing: a water leak.

Solutions to that problem are on the way.

Moisture sensor can detect water leakage, and report issues. One device maker has made a network connected water pipe valve. A developer can tie that valve capability to a moisture sensor to trigger a shutoff in the event of a leak. The homeowner will know what's going on in the house thanks to push notifications to a mobile device.

Welcome to the Internet of Things.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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This story, "SmartThings founder sees a limitless Internet of Things" was originally published by Computerworld.

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