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The companies that rule mobile are taking over the smart home, too

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Smart home products have been part of CES for well over a decade. But it wasn’t until recently — really, just these past two years — that smart home products and the Internet of Things have become a huge deal. So why is it only now catching on?

Mainstream companies want smart homes to go mainstream

There have been exciting smart home products before, like the Nest Thermostat, but it was’t until now that it’s felt like the smart home could be catching on. That’s because a few big companies are starting to build ecosystems — rather than product lines — to connect the devices you already have. They want the smart home to go mainstream, and they're doing that by making it really easy for consumers to buy in.

Samsung is the biggest proponent of this strategy at CES 2016. Just over a year ago, Samsung bought a small smart home company SmartThings that lets you use products from a number of different smart home platforms by connecting them all up in the cloud. Until now, you've always had to buy a SmartThings hub to get started. But Samsung is going to start shipping SmartThings functionality with its newest TV sets, letting everyone connect just by plugging in a free dongle.

Samsung's goal is to make sure everything you need to start building a smart home is already inside your home. Once you own a Samsung TV, you can start buying any of the 200 or so products that are certified to work with SmartThings — products that, by and large, aren't made by Samsung. Eventually, you can imagine SmartThings functionality being built into all Samsung appliances, quietly opening up smart home products to even more people.

This is similar to the approach that Apple started at last year's CES, and that we're seeing continue this year. Rather than using new appliances as a smart home hub, Apple is letting something that's already in millions of homes do the work: the iPhone. Apple's platform lets you chain together any of the products that have been marked as HomeKit compatible. The system is a lot more locked down than Samsung's — Apple has to approve every product, whereas not all products have to be certified to work with SmartThings — but it's also the easiest to get started with. You already own an iPhone; just buy one of these new gadgets, and you're up and running. (Samsung could, theoretically, do something like this with Galaxy phones in the future, too, offering compatibility with a smaller selection of SmartThings devices.)

This vision of how a smart home works is so much more appealing than what's been pitched over the last decade. You don't have to figure out which system you want. You don't have to set up a hub. You just buy a product because it works with what you already have — it's essentially turning every piece of your home into an accessory. You can mix and match however you'd like. Of course, that also means a potential for lock in, with platforms making it difficult to choose the exact devices you want.

"It's a brand they trust, a brand they recognize."

"These companies have sold tens of millions of products. They're households brands that people know every day," iDevices CEO Chris Allen told me over the phone last month. Allen's company makes products for the HomeKit system, and he thinks it'll be trust in major companies that actually gets consumers buying smart home products. "When they come with a connected product, the consumer will legitimately see that this market is coming alive. It's a brand they trust, a brand they recognize, and a brand they don't have to go out and educate themselves on," he says. "That makes it a much easier purchase in my mind."

idevices switch

Apple and Samsung are making pushes into the smart home for obvious reasons: the smart home — and, more broadly, the Internet of Things — is a huge business opportunity, especially if they're at the center of it. And neither has to worry about immediately profiting off of their work, since there are bigger stakes in the long run: Apple can further entrench the iPhone in people's lives; and eventually, Samsung intends to offer paid services through SmartThings — it's already starting to do this with security monitoring.

Google and Amazon are in the picture, too

Apple and Samsung may be the first of our current tech giants to try this approach, but they aren't the only ones. Google is working on a smart home language called Weave, which should eventually do for Android what HomeKit is doing for iOS. And Amazon is quietly building up its own smart home ecosystem using its voice assistant Alexa, which has been learning to talk to more and more products (and making its way inside of other companies' products, too).

That may sound like a new version of our current mess — too much going on in the smart home for any of it to make sense — but it's easy to see the issue being mitigated if two or three platforms become dominant. Just like most app developers support both iOS and Android, it wouldn't be a surprise if all companies in the smart home market supported both HomeKit and SmartThings, or SmartThings and Weave, or Weave and Alexa. That would also mean leaving consumers with options should one company make some disagreeable changes.

The nice thing about all of these companies taking on the smart home is that they can make it very easy for us. And, because they're so huge, they can get a rich ecosystem of companies to line up and listen, making compatible products that integrate with each other. But it's worth questioning whether, in the long run, it's ideal for the companies already ruling over mobile — and much more — to control yet another facet of our lives. That's already starting to happen. And if they continue to make building a smart home easy enough for everyone, it likely will.

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