On Monday, Samsung released a trio of smart home devices — SmartThings Cam, SmartThings Wi-Fi Smart Plug, and SmartThings Smart Bulb. These first-generation smart home devices from Samsung solidify the company as a low-priced competitor on its own developer platform, Works with SmartThings, as well as those of Amazon and Google.
The SmartThings devices themselves aren’t notable — it’s technology already out there, made cheaper. The camera rings in at $90, the plug $18, the bulb $10. Instead, Samsung’s low-priced devices shed light on both the paradox of smart home ecosystems and Samsung’s approach to innovation.
The smart home puts big tech companies in a unique business position. Once, they battled over a fairly constrained piece of real estate: your palm. Was it holding an iPhone, a Galaxy, a Pixel? With the explosion of smart home technology, that real estate has expanded to your home’s square footage. Now you have your choice of hubs and speakers, light bulbs and thermostats, garage door openers and doorbells.
The smart home systems from Samsung, Amazon, and Google all want your brand loyalty, but until they can provide for all of your smart home needs in-house, they have to also serve as active marketplaces where other brands hock their wares. In some cases, those third-party products have risen to the top (Ecobee thermostats, Ring doorbells). Winning the smart home future inherently requires a degree of collaboration (or at least compatibility) for companies that otherwise might be direct competitors.
Samsung has embraced this ethos more than its rivals. Works with SmartThings is one of the largest marketplaces for IoT developers. And unlike Google and Amazon, Samsung makes its smart home tech explicitly compatible with both competitors’ platforms. Unfortunately, Samsung’s cross-brand, open-source approach extends to its design.
The white, pared-down look and low prices of Samsung’s SmartThings lineup imitates AmazonBasics. It wouldn’t be the first time Samsung followed the lead of a more design-savvy competitor: In 2012, Samsung was ordered to pay Apple a billion dollars in damages for infringing on Apple’s iPhone design patents. Then there was, of course, the Galaxy Note 7 debacle, in which Samsung’s highly touted iPhone 7 competitor was found to occasionally overheat and explode. More recently, the Galaxy Fold proved poorly designed, and was likely rushed through production to claim the title of first foldable-screen phone. Already there are reported glitches in the SmartThings app and some of its connected devices.
In a rush to keep up with its more innovative rivals, Samsung has historically prized the appearance of svelte functionality over actual functionality. The sense that Samsung is always trailing after other tech companies — or recklessly beating them to the punch — comes through in the SmartThings branding. The name itself reads clunky, behind the times. In promoting it, Samsung feebly enjoins you to “Add a little smartness to your things.”
Still, Samsung’s new smart home gadgets highlight two of the company’s strongest traits: its bandwidth to create in any field and its ability to offer competitive, if not innovative, alternatives to market leaders. In providing consumers a fleshed-out alternative to the Google- or Amazon-powered smart home, Samsung puts pressure on those leaders to either innovate or cut prices.