The week of January 4, 2015

Me IRL: Alex Hawkinson

By Molly McHugh

This past summer, Samsung bought SmartThings, an Internet of Things startup focused on making your dumb home smarter. The company began on Kickstarter and is led by Alex Hawkinson, who has been working in software and cloud-based platforms for over a decade. He now finds himself an integral part of Samsung’s home automation efforts, leading one of the most lauded emerging technologies for one of the biggest companies in the world.

Hawkinson said that SmartThings—and the smart home movement in general—is focused on three things: security, peace of mind, and energy savings.

“We’re trying to do everything like an open platform,” he said, “so what sets us apart is that we have a big developer and app base. We’re easy and open.”

As casual as that sounds, these are exciting times for Hawkinson and SmartThings. The CEO will take the stage during Samsung’s CES keynote, and the company will power a demo smart home on the show floor. Ahead of the biggest week in tech, the Kernel spoke to Hawkinson about what he finds most exciting and challenging about the current Internet of Things landscape.

“I don’t like seeing all the walled gardens being built, and I think thats the biggest risk in this space.”

What’s your favorite app?

I just got the Oculus headset, well, the one made by Samsung with help from Oculus, called the Gear. I’ve been geeking out with those apps all holiday, taking 360-degree videos. I’m basically ready for the Matrix at any point. I’m really geeking out about the metaverse and how it’s going to change so many things. My kids will be able to travel and see all these different places with things like this.

Which way do you go: iPhone or Android?

That’s a tough one being a Samsung exec now. I like Android for its openness and I like iPhone for its simplicity and elegance. I use Android as my own phone, but my kids have iPods.

What’s the biggest challenge for the smart home right now?

I don’t like seeing all the walled gardens being built, and I think thats the biggest risk in this space, and we’re completely open, but we see a lot of people not doing that.

Secondary, a huge challenge is trying to make it super easy for everyday people, but still keeping it open to what’s possible so we’re not dumbing it down. Part of the wonder of the smart home is taking it in different directions and letting it reflect your personality and what you want to do with it. We need to let people explore what they can do with it, and if you over-simplify what some of these technologies can do, then those options won’t be there.

“The smart home percolates at the individual level and then grows from there.”

So when are we all going to have smart homes?

We’re [SmartThings] going to be in millions of homes this year, and I think in a couple of years I’d be surprised if it weren’t in the tens of millions, so it’s accelerating right now. I’d say it will be five years until its in 100 million homes around the world. And I think the friction of setting it up, the digging into walls and actually physically setting it up, is what’s challenging it and making it take that long. I think that friction is where any caution is coming from right now.

We’re just getting started with smart homes, but what do you think about smart city movements?

Amsterdam, Barcelona, Singapore all have great examples of this; but one of the things that’s really cool is that there are benefits for an individual household; you don’t need a whole city to do it. If it were only you on Facebook it would suck, but if your house is a smarthome then you get peace of mind and save money and then over time as more and more people do it, there are larger community benefits too, like elderly people getting to live in their homes longer or environmental benefits. But the smart home percolates at the individual level and then grows from there.

What’s your favorite smart home product?

I love my Sonos. It’s integrated so it plays the weather forecast when we walk into the kitchen in the morning, and plays different music depending on who’s in the room or what time of day it is. And then obviously there’s all the regular stuff, like my locks being connected, so they just automatically lock when we leave the house.

CES is right around the corner. What are you most looking forward to?

I ran a software company up until [SmartThings], so when we went to CES we would just rent a home and do meetings there and sleep on the floor of the house. This year I get to be in the Samsung keynote, so it’s been a crazy journey. We’re also going to be powering a 2,500 square foot house in the middle of the Samsung area. CES is just amazing, all the people you get to meet from all the startups.

“Our goal is that your home just becomes smarter around you, and wearables can definitely enable that to happen.”

There’s a lot of connection between wearables, the Internet of Things, and smart homes. How do you think about them: Fad or function?

I think it’s gonna be both. I think wearables are gonna be a mass market thing—just the health implications alone are huge. And once they’re small and ambient enough that they aren’t this big thing to control, that will help. But we’ve demoed it with the Gear app, and seriously, why not use something that makes your space more intelligent around you? I don’t think you’ll wear something just so you can unlock your door, but I think you’ll love that it does that. Our goal is that your home just becomes smarter around you, and wearables can definitely enable that to happen. But the smart home won’t be the be the reason you buy a wearable; that will come from a fashion or health perspective. But they will work with the smart home, and you’ll love that.

What piece of pop culture has gotten closest to depicting smart homes?

I know it’s cliche, but the movie Her. I think that sort of ambient environment, without like, flashing LED lights, is closest to what’s happening. There will some of that super futuristic stuff, but the most common applications are security and peace of mind and energy savings. A house my family had in the mountains was destroyed because the pipes froze and then burst, and water was flowing in the house; it was crazy. If we’d known about it when it happened or when the pipes first froze, then we could have handled it, but we had no idea.

Illustration by J. Longo