Samsung's smart home push hits disconnect

SmartThings, one of the key elements of Samsung's smart home effort, has been hampered by glitches in recent months.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
6 min read
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Shelley Powers was asleep one night in January when suddenly every light in her suburban St. Louis, Missouri, house came on. Then the sirens began to wail. It wasn't an intruder, though. It was a false alarm, one of many she'd experience over the following weeks.

After that, her smart home security system shifted between not arming or disarming itself at all and setting off false alarms. Pretty soon, Powers couldn't even count on her smart lights turning on at the times she designated, something that's pretty simple in the world of home automation.

The culprit turned out to be SmartThings, the technology that was supposed to let her effortlessly control all of her smart appliances. Instead of making her life easier, SmartThings couldn't handle the more than 60 smart devices Powers connected in her house. She ended up disabling the SmartThings Smart Home Monitor so she wouldn't lose her sanity.

Watch this: Samsung TVs can control your SmartThings

"It's just not something you can rely on," said Powers, a writer and former software engineer who blogs about her smart home.

SmartThings, the darling of Samsung's smart home push, isn't looking so cute right now. Users complain it's been glitchy, causing their security systems to sound alerts when nothing's happening or turning on lights when they're not supposed to. Devices disconnect themselves from the system or show they're working when they're not.

It's unclear how many users have been impacted by the issues, but one community blog post about the "SmartThings user experience and platform performance" had nearly 27,000 views and 1,700 comments in one month. That makes it one of the most active threads on SmartThings' message board.

The glitches are mostly affecting the system's power users who have dozens of connected devices, according to SmartThings. But it's also causing would-be SmartThings users to consider waiting for conditions to improve or opting for other systems. Most worriedly, the troubles raise concerns about whether the smart home is really ready for the mass market.

"SmartThings, when everything works, is really friendly for the average user," Powers said. "But for the average person coming into this [now]...they will run from [the Internet of Things] and smart home devices, all of them."

The SmartThings promise

Samsung has been making a big push to provide the hardware, software and services designed to make our homes smarter. The so-called Internet of Things -- which could hit a market value of $3.04 trillion in 2019, according to IDC -- involves the notion that everything around you should communicate and work together. Proponents say this will make life easier, letting you do things like close your garage door while you're away or get a heads-up from your refrigerator when you're out of milk.

Samsung adds smarts to its next-gen SmartThings Hub (pictures)

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SmartThings, a startup that Samsung bought in August 2014, lets you connect a hardware hub to a Wi-Fi router, fire up an app on Android, iOS or Windows, and control all of your smart appliances from one place. It works with everything from Nest Thermostats to Philips' Hue LED bulbs. People dabbling with smart home technology like the simplicity of SmartThings, while power users like its flexibility.

SmartThings is expected to play a key role next week at Samsung's developers conference, the company's venue for getting software makers excited about building apps for its various devices, from the smart home to virtual reality.

In the past year, the number of developers making apps that work with SmartThings has more than doubled to over 20,000. SmartThings says that number continues to rise.

SmartTiles is one of those companies, and lead developer Alex Malikov says he's optimistic that SmartThings will fix its issues. "I hope that this is the bottom of the hill and that it will go up from here," he said. "I remain hopeful."

But not every SmartThings developer or user shares Malikov's outlook.

User uprising

Powers is only one of many people who've complained on SmartThings community message boards or on Reddit about the problems they're having with their smart home systems. One user called it "fatally flawed," while another claiming to be a SmartThings employee "wouldn't recommend it for non-technical users."

Developers and users rebelled last week after the creator of one well-liked app, Rule Machine, withdrew support for SmartThings. Rule Machine lets people set complex commands such as telling the system to turn on an electric blanket in the bedroom if "my presence or my wife's presence is home, there is motion in the bedroom, it's between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. and the temperature is below 65."

Creator Bruce Ravenel stopped supporting Rule Machine on the SmartThings platform because of what he called "ongoing serious degradation of the SmartThings platform" that causes "random failure" of Rule Machine and makes it "function in unpredictable ways," according to his message board post. He did not respond to CNET's request for comment.

That, and the other complaints over the past several months, prompted SmartThings CEO Alex Hawkinson to post an apology to the SmartThings community last week. In it, he took responsibility for the issues users have faced and said SmartThings is making efforts to improve reliability.

Too big too fast?

Hawkinson, speaking with CNET, called the issues "growing pains" that are an "urgent but natural [part of the] maturation process."

He said the problems have impacted users with more than the five or six smart products typical for new users. Hawkinson declined to specify the average number of products users have (beyond saying it's "well over 10"), but many people on the community boards talk about dozens, and even hundreds, of connected devices.

Hawkinson also said the problems are a downside of SmartThings' openness. Some apps not approved by SmartThings have caused issues. And because people can experiment by creating a variety of apps and hooking up different devices, things don't always work as they should.

Watch this: SmartThings aims for the mainstream with its new smart home hub

SmartThings is taking steps to make its technology more reliable while maintaining its openness, Hawkinson said. Among those are changes in how its system is set up to make sure apps that nearly everyone uses are isolated so they're not impacted if experimental apps fail. SmartThings also changed the way scheduled smart apps are triggered in the system to make sure actions, like turning on a light, happen when they're supposed to. And it will give users more information about what's having issues -- the SmartThings system or a particular app.

The SmartThings team is also talking with Ravenel and deploying fixes to its system to make sure Rule Machine and other apps that "test the limits" of its platform work properly. It didn't provide a timeline for when the app will be available again.

For SmartThings, not being able to deal with growth should be a concern, especially since it's no longer a startup but is owned by one of the biggest and most powerful technology companies on the planet. If Samsung, which has over 319,000 employees in 84 countries, can't figure out how to support users with multiple devices, what hope do smart home startups have?

"We expected scaling, and we're prepping for that," said Hawkinson, who acknowledged that SmartThings has more to do to fix its glitches and regain user trust. "We're confident we're taking steps to isolate some of the openness so it doesn't affect the mainstream."

As for Powers, the updates from last week didn't resolve the problems she's been having with her SmartThings system. Her lights, for instance, still don't turn on at sunset every day, despite having scheduled them through SmartThings.

"I won't turn on the Smart Home Monitor," she said. "I'm just not going to put any trust into it. Or lose sleep because of it."

CNET's Rich Brown contributed to this report.

Samsung smart TVs are things that are SmartThings (pictures)

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