How the Internet of Things Will Connect it All


  • Alex Hawkinson, SmartThings

  • Alex Hawkinson, SmartThings


Alex Hawkinson
Founder and CEO, SmartThings

Session Description:
Computation and communication is moving from our computers and the cloud into all the things that surround us. The so-called Internet of Things is expanding into our bodies, homes and cars, and infusing the infrastructure of our cities. Where are the limits and what are the opportunities of the IoT?

Hawkinson: I may be a harbinger of the cat recognition feeder apocalypse that’s coming here. As David said, I’m founder and CEO of a company called SmartThings. We started a few years ago. I had a big flood in a house that we have in our family out in Colorado, found it destroyed by moisture and woke up sort of shocked that the house didn’t have a voice and that we weren’t able to detect that something was going on in the home, in the same way that all of this hyper-connected information reaches us in every other part of our lives.

So I started SmartThings a few years ago. We just merged with Samsung last summer, and so we have a little bit of an interesting perspective, seeing this wave around IoT, given that Samsung is the largest consumer electronics company in the world, making about 665 million things per year now that have a connection in them.

So a few points, I’m going to keep it fairly simple, and then I hope to engage some dialogue outside of the slides. One is that IoT is really, really big. I don’t know how familiar everyone is with it, but I see it as almost the third wave of the Internet. It’s gotten to the point now where these underlying technologies, these little radios that can be put into anything have gotten to the point where for one to two dollars you can add a connection to anything that you’re making. And it can have a connection that reaches over hundreds of yards, in some cases miles, adds the ability to interface with it in different ways.

And that has a lot of implications. It’s going to mean that we can monitor anything that we choose to, effectively. With simple sensors you can add connections to any device in the world and you can keep track of what’s going on and that has a lot of positive and negative implications to it. It also means that you can control the world with software. So you can add this connection based on what’s going on in that thing, you can reach down and make a choice about controlling something that’s controllable. So as an example, a popular one is reducing energy use in a home based on knowing if the residents are there or not, and so many other opportunities.

So some of the big level stats—you know, there are so many different ways we could cut it. I actually believe, and Samsung I think believes that this number is too low: 50 billion connected devices by 2020. I think that’s low just because of just Samsung’s footprint, where the direct devices that we are creating are all going to be connected over the next couple of years, all of the devices you have in your homes and so on. And it’s happening across many different companies and industries. So effectively, everything that has value in having a connection will have a connection over the next several years, with all of the implications that go alongside that.

The way that it works—I’m going to try to give some really simplistic examples, because most people don’t necessarily get all of this. You can add a connection to anything. What’s happening as an example in homes is it’s democratizing technologies that bring security and energy savings and other things to everyday people like us.

So in the SmartThings universe, we have a hub device that’s this thing in the center here, that costs $99 dollars. You have one in a home. It speaks all of these different languages for these connecting devices. Then we have what we call things. This is an example of a motion sensor. That’s a siren. All of these things connect locally through a hub up to a cloud of some sort, in our case, then out from that to mobile apps and other such things. So in the example of home security, very simple: Somebody comes in, it triggers an event on a motion sensor, tells that to the hub, that sends the information to the cloud, and then apps can be written to do all sorts of things like notify you or your neighbors, it can turn on a siren as a deterrent and so on. And it really adds up in a simple way where, as an example, on our platform, which is open, we’ve had 19,000 different types of things added to the platform. So the world is sort of alight with companies building new types of connecting devices that serve all different purposes.

And in the cloud, we have an app platform that’s similar to—I’m sure all of you have a smartphone and you’ve downloaded apps for it. People building apps then to do different things with this information put it to use in areas like security and energy savings and so on. There’s been more than 30,000 of those apps written over the course of the past year, so a tremendous amount of innovation building from these simple, basic concepts.

One of the things I wanted to get across is this may not be all for you, but all of the scenarios in this sort of context-aware environment that knows, can sense what the occupants of it are doing, can control things dynamically with apps, be aware of the presence information and take action based on that, all of these scenarios are possible now and they’re the types of things, you see all of these edges of innovation happening, and that’s just in the home. And if you look at this wave and you look at it more broadly across all industries, this connectivity of the everyday things, it creates enormous opportunities and then some really big challenges as well. And I’ll spend a few minutes speaking to just some examples that come off the top of my head that we look at.

So an example around starting the company: Zero preventable loss of life and property, this idea that you can monitor and know when something is going wrong, or is prospectively going to go wrong. And how much friction is there in society right now? As an example, the entire insurance model, where it’s a top expenditure in households for just home insurance as an example, where if you can prevent the loss by being in front of the issue before it becomes a big problem how much can you disrupt a lot of the economics of that as an example.

Another: Carbon reduction goals met. There’s a very striking report just looking at in the consumer space, let alone commercial environments, this sort of monitoring of your usage, if you’re asleep or if you leave the home, being able to do things like shut down energy usage in high consuming appliances. Your thermostat with Nest is a great example of this. You can sort of take out 20, 30, 40% of energy use in a home with the human beings that are living in it not doing anything about it, not recognizing that they’re changing their behaviors and so on. And you can magnify that across other spaces, and if you have enough of society using these technologies, it really puts a dent in energy usage, and thus carbon reduction goals.

Independence for elders, and I like to say independence for kids too, but this environment where I think a lot of the aging population—you know, my parents, I look at them and my friends and so on, people are being prematurely pushed out of their homes basically because there’s a feeling you can’t keep an eye on them enough and something may go wrong. So there’s a huge implication of these basic technologies helping people to live in their homes happily longer, sensing issues in advance.

All sorts of connected health—and I could spend a day talking about the technologies on injectable and wearable sensors that are going to enter your bodies and how that’s going to let you get in front of health issues. My family has a history of heart problems, and I sort of imagine the future where we’re in front of it and the defibrillator is brought in by the Amazon delivery drone just in time. So lots of opportunities in preventative health care and healthy living. And of course an industry, again, we could spend the whole day talking about that.

Some of the big challenges are obvious within this. So my home as an example, it’s got about 200 connected devices. There’s more than 100,000 events that happen in the home per day and it’s a lot of information about who is there and what we’re doing and our state and all sorts of other patterns. There’s an enormous privacy challenge with that, that I think that everyone in the industry has to have some first principles around preserving ownership of the data at the end user level, but there’s a lot of complexity there.

Security: What are the vectors for hackers now when the entire world is connected? I think, again, you could have an entire discussion on just the initiatives to make these environments more secure from the endpoint all the way through to the cloud and so on.

And finally, another big challenge is the fragmentation. There’s so much opportunity in the space that there’s an enormous number of companies attacking it, creating devices that then don’t connect to anything else, creating these walled gardens that slow down innovation, create context where not enough flexibility, not enough freedom of choice is sort of given to users, whether those are consumers or corporate buyers in different cases. And so in all of these cases, folks like us, we’re certainly like leaning into models that are completely open that sort of take a very proactive stance toward these things, but it’s an enormous set of challenges that go with the space as well.

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