Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the lights on at MakeUseOf. Read more.
Smart home technology has matured a lot over the past couple of years, evolving from a novelty product into something that can be effectively and powerfully integrated into modern life. However, a process such as this puts forward a lot of difficult questions, many of which have to be answered by developers on behalf of their users.
A recent update to the SmartThings app demonstrates that the California-based company might be departing from the course that has made it one of the most notable smart home manufacturers in the industry. This sort of tech is certainly changing — but it remains to be seen whether the shift is for better, or for worse.
The Way Things Were
Part of the appeal of the prior SmartThings experience was that it offered a surprising amount of flexibility. For one, the system supports a wide range of third party devices including Philips Hue lightbulbs and D-Link Wi-Fi cameras — functionality that remains present after the update. However, the straightforward app used to set up your SmartThings devices was another major advantage.
A simple but deep system of controls allowed users to build programs customized for their own usage. You would specify the device you were looking to use, then the app would offer your controls to dictate the desired input and output for the scenario, as well as settings pertaining to when it would be in effect and how the user would be notified.
It was not a perfect system, but it allowed for a lot of flexibility, particularly when combined with the excellent resources on IFTTT. Sadly, the new update has changed things across the board, and at present it’s difficult to ignore the fact that the app simply isn’t as robust as it was before.
The Shock of the New
The new app streamlines much of the functionality that made the SmartThings ecosystem as good as it was. One of the most prominent features is the new Smart Home Monitor, which seems to have informed much of the product’s new direction. Instead of building your own programs to keep an eye on your home, it seems that users are being steered towards using a combination of the Monitor and the app’s dashboard.
There’s nothing wrong with that in theory, especially given that both parts of the app function very well. However, there simply isn’t the scope for customization that there once was — and that might favor a new user, but looks set to leave longtime SmartThings users out in the cold.
The prior functionality has been replaced by Routines, which seem to do a good job of making it easy to set up how smart home devices like lighting and door locks function in various circumstances. However, it’s less well suited to notifying users about triggers like the Open/Closed sensor or the Presence device.
One of the biggest disappointments is the fact that SmartThings and IFTTT no longer play nicely with one another. A comment by SmartThings CEO Alex Hawkinson on the blog post announcing the app update suggests that this problem should be fixed soon, but it remains to be seen whether IFTTT implementation will be changed at all.
It’s also worth noting that the new version of the app doesn’t offer much improvement in terms of basic usability. The dashboard is a good method of delivering lots of information at a glance, but in other ways the app is now more difficult to navigate.
Pop-up info screens do a fine job of updating users on the new layout, but it can be quite difficult to get your bearings, particularly if you’ve become accustomed to the way things were. The icons at the bottom of the screen are particularly unhelpful, as they don’t do a great job of illustrating what content is contained within a particular section. Overall, the update seems like a step backwards in many respects.
Is There Hope For The Future?
Despite the fact that the current iteration of the app seems like a step back from the previous version, it’s too early to say that SmartThings is heading down the wrong path. The update only went live three weeks ago, and software like this is perennially in a state of ongoing development.
Once the SmartThings app and IFTTT are playing nicely again, it’ll be much easier to tell whether the system as a whole is as robust as it once was. With the proper implementation, it might even improve upon the way things were set up in the past — but it’s a major question mark as of the time of writing.
There’s also the possibility that the development team at SmartThings are aiming towards a different type of usage. If their devices are being pitched as home monitors, rather than tech that offers a completely flexible smart home set-up, then it’s easy to see why these changes have been made. However, it’s bound to disappoint the users that adopted the system because of its flexibility.
The SmartThings system is a really promising platform, but it’s clear that it’s at a crossroads at present, thanks in no small part to the fact that smart home tech is on the verge of hitting the mainstream. To be successful in that environment, the development team has to keep an influx of novice users in mind — but hopefully that won’t come at the detriment of early adopters.
Have you downloaded the latest update to the SmartThings app? Do you prefer it to the previous version? Or, are you of the opinion that it’s a step backwards rather than forwards? Join the discussion in the comments section below.