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SmartThings poaches Amazon engineering director to start simplifying the smart home

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SmartThings

SmartThings has hired Robert Parker away from Amazon to oversee future hardware and software development as its new SVP of engineering. At Amazon, Parker served as a director of engineering, spending five years working on a number of the company's top projects, including Alexa, the Fire TV Stick, and Prime Music. Before that, he spent 18 years at Microsoft.

"SmartThings has this opportunity to really be the heart of your home."

Now starting at SmartThings, Parker says he intends to apply his knowledge of building consumer-friendly products to the smart home market, which is in dire need of help. "I'm going to make something that is measurably better for your house," Parker says.

Parker's plan is to amp up what SmartThings is already doing: connecting disparate gadgets in the cloud.

"SmartThings has this opportunity to really be the heart of your home," he says. "When I started talking to Alex [Hawkinson, SmartThings' CEO], one of the things that was really exciting to me was thinking about taking that experience to the next level."

As we talk about SmartThings' future, the word Parker keeps coming back to is "guardrails." He wants to establish safeguards that'll help smart-home products work exactly how they're supposed to (or that'll at least help you figure out what's wrong when something breaks). "Having something that really works is critical," Parker says. "That's one of the things that working at Amazon, I carry to SmartThings."

It sounds like that future will essentially look like a more serious SmartThings certification system, which will require compatible products and apps to provide more information to its cloud. The changes should give SmartThings a clearer look at what's happening in each home.

"Openness has really allowed people to participate," Parker says, referring to the 30,000 developers working in SmartThings ecosystem. "The next step is to sit there and say, 'now that you're participating, let's making sure that we help the ecosystem as a whole get better, work better, be more reliable, and be more scalable.'"

This might sound somewhat sacrilegious from SmartThings. Since its inception, SmartThings has always prided itself on complying with open smart-home standards that anyone can be a part of — setting up SmartThings-specific standards seemingly starts to undermine that.

Even as it adds constraints, SmartThings intends to stay open

"It's gonna be consistent with the vision we have today," SmartThings CEO Alex Hawkinson says. "But I want to see us be the leader in providing an environment that has guarantees around how well [smart home] devices can come to work for the consumer."

Neither Hawkinson nor Parker would detail precisely how SmartThings' "guardrails" will work, but they indicated that the company hopes to build on top of the existing open standards. So, theoretically, these products will still work with other smart-home systems; they'll just work better with SmartThings.

The coming changes, Hawkinson says, are about making the smart home "very accessible, simple, and reliable for consumers."

Samsung's Developer Conference kicks off on Wednesday, and SmartThings will certainly have a role to play there. Samsung is starting to integrate SmartThings with its high-end TVs, and it's promised to make all of its products part of the IoT by 2020.

The changes will roll out over 2016

SmartThings indicated that its updated strategy wouldn't be rolling out all at once — we may not see any part of it this week. But over the course of this year, expect to see SmartThings new strategy begin to roll out.

With Samsung at its back, SmartThings is well positioned to start opening up smart-home products to more people. But its plans for accessibility speak to broader threats in the market. Closed smart-home ecosystems, from companies like Apple and Google, could grow quickly and offer a smoother experience. And as a wholly open ecosystem, SmartThings' place at the "heart of your home" could easily be replaced by Wink, or any number of other competing products.

It sounds like, over the next year, we'll see how SmartThings intends to deal with those two issues. Taking them on by making smart home products work better certainly isn't a bad idea.