With SmartThings buy, is Samsung embracing an open Internet of Things?

An Internet of Things startup may help shape a consumer goliath's product strategy

In acquiring SmartThings, Samsung is gaining a philosophy, platform and development community for the Internet of Things (IoT). It may also be betting that open standards -- open platforms -- will be the key to winning this market.

Its founder, Alex Hawkinson, is a strong advocate of open platforms, and reiterated the goal of creating "a totally open smart home" after Samsung announced it was acquiring the company. SmartThings said it will remain "operationally independent" within Samsung's Open Innovation Group.

But there are questions about Samsung's move. In acquiring smaller companies, big vendors can help good ideas and technologies flourish, or they can bury them.

SmartThings, a start-up operating in a former mill in Washington, created an open platform for connecting devices that attracted a community of independent developers and device makers. These developers can take IoT-enabled products and connect them in ways that deliver new kinds of functionality.

This might involve connecting a door bell to a wireless speaker that blares with the sound of a barking dog. If someone can find a good reason for linking a bathroom scale to a refrigerator, the app platform could accomplish that as well. If devices are open and accessible, the only limit for platform developers is imagination.

What remains to be seen is this: Will Samsung embrace SmartThings's approach and incorporate it in its Android mobile products? Or will it isolate SmartThings and keep it in its innovation petri dish?

SmartThings brings benefits that Samsung does not have, unlike its chief rival Apple, namely a growing development community. But Samsung may have to move quickly to convince SmartThings developers that it plans to grow and expand the SmartThings platform.

There was mixed reaction to SmartThings' acquisition on development community boards. The sale drew questions about how much importance Samsung will assign to SmartThings in its product strategy, and whether the platform will remain truly open.

But some saw a logic if not inevitability to an acquisition, and wondered how long the startup could go on alone in a multibillion-dollar market battle.

One commenter, writing under the name Geko, wrote "You've got to be strong to play this game," and that consolidation "started with Google acquiring Nest and this is just the beginning."

Nick Jones, an analyst at Gartner, said Samsung needs to grow its capabilities in the IoT area, and SmartThings "is one path to do so."

No company will ever own all the devices in a home, "but even so, their products will need to play in a world where the home isn't ruled by Samsung, so a generic IoT platform could be a useful tool here," Jones said.

Mobile devices will also act as the control hub, and with SmartThings, Samsung can ensure that the control hub "operates superbly with Samsung mobile devices."

SmartThings also gives Samsung "not just a product but a developer ecosystem," Jones said. "This is a weapon to fight other large companies who are also trying to own the smart home," namely Google and Apple.

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