The future is getting clearer all the time. Granted, we’re not looking down on it, soaring high above the earth strapped to the jetpacks we were promised, but we are getting closer on ground level. The connected home/home automation space, for example, is approaching the realization of a smart house that any fan of The Jetsons or Epcot Center has dreamt about. 

The emerging connected home segment shows a tremendous upshot. MarketsandMarkets predicted the home automation industry will grow from $16.8 billion in 2011 to $35.6 billion in 2016. But as connectivity creeps into more of the features and facets of the traditional home, controlling those devices runs the risk of becoming a more fragmented experience.

App Overload

Locking the door, turning on the lights and adjusting the temperature can all require their own application and start to overload a device and turn home automation management into a tedious game of flipping through apps.

“I don’t want an app for every capability that I have,” Strategy Analytics analyst Bill Ablondi said. “Somehow, I want it all integrated together. That’s a user interface challenge that many are aware of but I think it’s got a long way to go.”

WigWag, a platform/hardware solution that’s still in Kickstarter, has the potential to tie up a lot of connected loose ends around the house and stick them together on one unified interface. IFTTT—that stands for “If This, Then That,”—just launched an iOS app for its fun, creative approach toward automation. IFTTT has been around since 2010 and has since given users a way to minimize steps (and apps) through what it refers to as “recipes.” Recipes can do things like control lights and other electronics through leveraging products like Belkin sensors and Phillips’ Hue bulbs.

But one of the highest profile home automation efforts that is already in the market is AT&T’s Digital Life, a service the carrier launched in April and intends to have in 50 U.S. markets by the end of 2013—it’s already launched in 39. Digital Life leverages hardware (a connected hub, sensors, cameras, etc…) communicating through AT&T’s wireless network and low-power Z-Wave standard with a mobile/web platform for orchestrating it all. The project started after AT&T acquired smart home startup Xanboo in 2010 and debuted in an old New Orleans home during CTIA in 2012. And though the cornerstone of the service is home security, Glenn Lurie, AT&T’s president of emerging enterprises and partnerships, said it’s the convenience factor that’s been created the most buzz.

Automatic for the People

“The automation side of this is what’s really driving the excitement around the product,” Lurie said. “One of the things we’ve been able to because it’s all IP-based, because every aspect of this is ours, from A to Z this is our platform, we’ve been able to allow people to customize every aspect of this platform.”

The app that makes it all work comes in iOS, Android, Windows Phone and web-based flavors but pushes simplicity and ease-of-use in all iterations. The app limits itself to three basic functions: home, devices and custom views. Beyond the home page displaying general information and updates, users can peruse all the devices at work in their home by type or room. Each device displays some heads-up info—“locked” or “unlocked” for a door—and rolls out further function, for instance setting a temporary door code. Custom views allows users to group devices and functions. An example would be a “Nighttime” custom view that only includes the steps pertinent to that household routine.

But the real customization comes with the Programs function, which enables users to set notifications, schedule tasks and make connecting activities, which are multi-step processes similar to IFTTT. For instance, when the front door opens, a camera can snap a photo and email it to you. Those photos or videos are stored in the cloud next to the system activity log, where only subscribers can securely access them through the app.

It’s a lot of functionality crammed into one app yet it manages to maintain its user friendliness, something that Lurie said is crucial to Digital Life’s success.

“We knew that building the application on the web—on your smartphone, on your tablet—we knew it had to be incredibly simple,” Lurie said. “We joked around and said ‘We’d like this to be for a 5 year old or a 95 year old.’”

“The whole goal here was aggregation. The whole goal here was giving [customers] one place to go to manage their entire Digital Life in their home.”

Lurie added that in the past, home automation has been about bringing in a bunch of disparate pieces and controls. Of course that approach still likely dominates the connected home market as many customers start slowly and gradually adding on more devices and functionality to their home automation system.

A Smart Home for Everything

An emerging contender for unifying that process is SmartThings, a startup that last year nearly quintupled its Kickstarter goal of raising $250,000. It finished shipping to its Kickstarter supporters and is hoping to open up to customers in addition to those on the wait list before the end of 2013. SmartThings consists of a main hub, a variety of sensors and controls and an app that manages it all. CEO Alex Hawkinson said SmartThings’ goal is to “turn your smartphone into a remote for all the everyday objects in your life.” Beyond that, Hawkinson sees it as an open platform for letting the world add intelligence to all sorts of new things.

The idea for SmartThings started as not much more than a home monitoring system, something Hawkinson was inspired to create after his family arrived at its winter cabin in Colorado for vacation only to discover that a burst pipe had frozen the entire house over.

“I couldn’t stand not knowing that that had happened,” Hawkinson said.

So SmartThings began with a connected sensor hub but grew as the company saw the vast array of connected devices on the market and the opportunity to bring all those things together into one platform and user experience. As a result, SmartThings is truly agnostic, supporting standards like Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Bluetooth and Z-Wave. The openness of the platform—its Build community for inventors and developers is already 3,000 strong—is what opens SmartThings up to all functions, programs and devices. Hawkinson said the programs by developers will land in an app store within the SmartThings app where users can pick and choose functions they want. 

In short, SmartThings is a big world that will continue to expand.

In order to keep it all organized and easy, Hawkinson said the simplicity of the app was essential.

“Heavy curation is the way to think of it,” Hawkinson said of the app, referring to limiting what the broad user community sees within the app and using recommendations based on activity to help broaden the user’s scope of what’s available.

“Our ambition is to provide the most accessible, right-out-of-the-box experience for end users. You definitely don’t have to be a technologist. It’s really meant for anyone that has a smartphone,” Hawkinson said.

Hawkinson recognizes that a lot of new users to SmartThings will likely start with just one or two automations in their homes, so he wants to make sure that it is easy to start out slow and easy to dig deeper if or when users want to. The clean, simple design of the SmartThings app goes a ways toward making that kind of openness not seem overwhelming.

“[Openness] is a big gap to straddle. You see a lot of companies doing closed efforts and I think in some cases that’s an attempt to make it narrow and easy,” Hawkinson said. “To us that loses the upside to all this incredible stuff we see happening with these thousands of developers and device makers creating new things.”

And though AT&T will eventually open Digital Life SDKs to developers, allow third-party devices and even license the platform to international carriers, for now it essentially embodies the closed platform approach.

But Lurie believes Digital Life will expand into other verticals, like health care, and part of the fuel for that expansion will be opening the platform up to developers and device makers. With that growth considered, he was positive it wouldn’t affect the user experience.

“I am very confident that adding more devices, adding more things is not going to make [the app] harder to use,” Lurie said. “In fact I think we’re be able to use the technology to continue to simplify the overall customer experience.”

Keep it Simple

Presenting home automation to customers as a simple process is what will help drive the industry down the road, Ablondi said, adding that there’s still a fair amount of people avoiding the connected home space because it seems complicated.

“That need to make it simple is really important,” Ablondi said. “They talk about that being the life-acceptance factor. I think you to pass the home owner-acceptance factor, really.”

And as Hawkinson points out, there are some people shooting for total home automation but the majority of people are coming at it with just one life problem they want solved. As long as SmartThings, Digital Life and other entrants into the segment keep the controls simple, the process of home automation, regardless of individual scale, won’t turn into another life problem.