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It’s the 21st Century: weren’t we all supposed to be living in automated homes by now? Where we walk in the door after a long day to have our home playing some soothing music, informing us that it’s run us a bath and that dinner will be ready in 45 minutes? Where a robot has done the cleaning, changed the flowers, accepted a parcel that arrived while we were at work and fed the cat?

That dream seems to be a long time coming. I’m a reasonably techy guy who loves the idea of home automation, yet even I only have three examples in my home (which I’ll mention along the way). Most mass-market consumers haven’t even noticed that the products exist, and the few who have tend to view it all as too complicated or fiddly.

If anyone can change that perception, it’s Apple. Which is why the Financial Times report yesterday that Apple is working on a new approach to home automation that may be unveiled at WWDC next week caught my attention … 

The piece was very light on detail, suggesting only that Apple’s approach would in some way integrate various forms of smart home devices, simplify the setup – and that iPhones would be used to tell devices when an individual was home.

Before we look at what form Apple’s solution might take, let’s see if we can figure out the problems: the reason home automation hasn’t yet taken off.

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First, home automation was, for a long time, largely the preserve of the wealthy. There were proprietary systems out there, but they typically came with five-figure price tags. Going the DIY route was a cheaper alternative, but the combination of electronics, coding and handyperson skills required made that too a path open only to the few.

That much has changed. There are now a whole range of smart home products out there in the $50-250 range. Apple even has a whole Connected Home section in its online store. Color-changing lightbulbs, smart baby monitors, security systems – even a thermometer that will send an iPhone alert when your roast is cooked to perfection and a sensor that will let you know when your plants need watering.

Of course, affordability remains a barrier. Drop a bunch of those $50-250 products into your shopping basket and you’ll quickly be into a four-figure spend. But investing in a modest number of smart home products is going to be within reach of many Apple customers.

Low awareness is now a greater barrier than high cost.

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Second, the term ‘home automation’ is a bit of a vague one. A porch light fitted with a simple passive IR switch is undeniably automatic, but isn’t something we would usually associate with the term. Conversely, some of the gadgets we would associate with the term aren’t necessarily automatic.

For example, I have iPhone-controlled lighting through some Belkin Wemo sockets. These can be automated by creating rules, but most of the time they aren’t: I just use my iPhone to manually switch them on and off.

My Logitech Boombox speaker systems similarly have some degree of automation. If two of them are playing and I change the music on one, the other will simultaneously switch. But much of the time I’m just using one of them as a convenient method of streaming music from my MacBook Pro.

Which is why I think the term ‘smart home’ is a better one. It implies intelligence, while also allowing for technology that allows us to do things in smarter ways – like switching on lights before we enter the room.

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Third, complexity. Some individual products are very user-friendly these days. For example, Wemo sockets virtually set up the wifi connection themselves. But others aren’t. Setting up my Boomboxes, for example, involved entering both SSID and (complex) wifi password using a rotary knob.

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Finally, fragmentation. Even where individual products are easy to use, each requires its own app, and each of those apps have their own user-interfaces.

Apple can solve the first couple of problems almost overnight. The very fact that Apple is focusing on the smart home concept will fill the tech sites, and a simple marketing campaign will quickly bring it to the attention of the mass-market.

Using the term ‘Smart Home’ or ‘Connected Home’ allows Apple to pick and choose the products it wants to include under its umbrella, whether those products are genuinely automated or merely offer more convenient manual control.

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Complexity and fragmentation are issues Apple can address in several different ways. Apple can lay down standards manufacturers have to meet in order to use its smart home branding, in the same way it does with MFi products. One element of those standards would be communications protocols – so that an iPhone coming into range will be able to notify all compatible devices that its owner has arrived home.

But other aspects of that standard could specify things like the setup procedure. For example, in my ideal world, all wifi devices would use the approach used by Wemo: the device itself creates its own wifi network, you connect the iPhone to it, tell it the SSID and password of your router and then the device automatically connects.

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I’m not sure whether some single, integrated app to control all smart home devices would be either practical or desirable. It might just about work on a full-sized iPad, but would, I think, be messy on an iPhone screen (even the larger ones of the iPhone 6).

But there are a couple of steps that could be taken short of that. As a minimum, require all smart home branded apps to use a consistent user-interface. So it wouldn’t matter whether you were dimming a light, turning up the aircon or checking on the baby, the apps would all have a similar look & feel, with consistent navigation elements.

A compromise between the single, all-encompassing app and a bunch of separate ones with consistent UIs would be to have a small number of function-dependent apps. So a single app for controlling lighting, for example, no matter whether that lighting was a Wemo switch, a Philips Hue or something new. Another app for all cameras, be it a security CCTV or a baby monitor.

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So … a marketing campaign to raise awareness of the benefits and simplicity of smart home devices … a consistent and painless setup process for different devices … and a small suite of apps with a consistent UI, each of which can control devices from multiple manufacturers.

Deliver that, and yes, I believe Apple could indeed turn smart home devices into mass-market products. I very much hope the rumor is true.

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46 Responses to “Opinion: Will Apple’s Smart Home concept bring home automation to the masses?”

  1. My issue is that Google is doing the same thing. However, Knowing Apple, I doubt I’ll have quick access to Google’s home automation systems. Ever since the Apple executives threw a hissy fit over Nest being purchased, I have very little confidence I can quick options from my iPhone to turn my Google dish washer on. If Apple makes me choose between an Apple house or Google house, there is little doubt it is going to be Google. They are the ones doing interesting stuff with their money. As for privacy concerns, you can’t really stop the NSA.. I wouldn’t expect ads on my fridge. This is the final frontier!

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    • The thing about Google though is besides being inherently insecure, it’s a complete monolithic system you buy into when you use Google products.

      the problem you are having is that you are trying to mix and match two competing services. Googles products will always only really work with Google’s services and the same for Apple. To expect Apple to support Google’s products and vice versa is basically asking for the impossible.

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    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      It will make sense to stick with whichever ecosystem you’re invested in. For most 9to5Mac readers, that will be Apple. I’m confident Google will also do a good job, but it has a different business model, so I would always be a little more wary about the data/advertising angle.

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      • Will this be home automation or home automation lite? There are existing solutions out there and it’s a pretty mature market with standards, etc. For example, what type of communication will Apple use between a light switch and its “system”? Bluetooth? That’s not rock solid as proven protocols like Zigbee. Posted in here already, felt Apple should have acquired Control 4… that would have made more sense than Beats…

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      • Ben Lovejoy says:

        The FT suggests NFC, which strikes me as exceedingly unlikely due to the lack of range. Most existing standalone systems use wifi, which still strikes me as the most sensible approach.

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    • Except I expect Apple to be the one to fully assemble the puzzle and figure out all the individual pieces. Google may be doing some interesting things, but they aren’t really piecing together the entire picture. That’s the entire point of this article, that he expects Apple to be the ones to really figure out the entire problem and make it approachable to the non-techie average consumer.

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    • Joel Henson says:

      Google is the one doing interesting stuff with your private info too

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    • I’ll trust Apple over Google to continue supporting home automation gear for its useful life. As a jaded Nexus S user, I know all too well that anything Android related won’t get more than 18 months of updates. That’s why the Nexus 7 (2013) tablet I’m typing this post on is the last device I buy running Android.

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  2. If Apple is smart, they will not reinvent the wheel but make some sort of bridge that is built into the Apple TV that supports common standards and allow them to be controlled and set up from there. Anything they currently sell on their store under the Connected Home section should be compatible, and its a win-win for both old and new customers.

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    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      I think Apple has enough clout to simply persuade manufacturers to adopt a common standard. I agree that all products sold through Apple should be compatible.

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    • Tallest Skil says:

      >>If Apple is smart, they will not reinvent the wheel

      I don’t think you know much about Apple.

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    • I think Apple is going a step in that exact direction… I believe it will allow every little tiny home automation equipment manufacturer to plug into the Apple Home Automation System… Have curtains with ZigBee? The “system” picks it up, downloads the drivers/APIs, and asks you how you wish to control it.
      Then they will not be in the hardware manufacturing pissing match vs google, and all google home automation devices will magically work with Apple’s system.
      Further entrenching people into Apple’s control/architecture…
      And the central unit could be an AppleTV with a Zigbee receiver…

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  3. It’s all fun and games until the robots revolt… or get hacked and attack you… by shutting off the AC during the high summer heat.

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  4. This is really exciting and it follows a well known pattern. Apple has a habit of bringing together known innovations in a well designed and user friendly package. It happened with music, phones and other things. I would trust Apple much more than Google to step into my home. Security, customer service, attitude, innovation – you name it, Apple delivers.

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  5. Jack Gnasty says:

    I think the ‘smart home’ market has not taken off because it’s a novelty. A lot of the stuff is simply done because they can, like a tv monitor on a fridge door. Does a wifi enabled light bulb really solve any kind of problem? It has a cool factor, but I don’t think anyone was really complaining about the traditional wall switch. I put most of the smart home stuff in the same basket as a ‘smart’ watch. It’s novel, there’s a cool factor to some degree, but when it comes time to plunk down money folks would rather spend it on something else.

    I think the answer is really already mentioned above… the smartphone industry is peaking and the tech industry is looking for the ‘next’ thing. Unfortunately, the ‘necessity’ of this invention is coming from the end of the equation.

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    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      I can say from personal experience that my Tado heating system offers genuine benefits – it heats the home when the schedule says it should only if there is someone home, stops the pipes freezing even when switched off, turns the heating on when it detects someone on the way home, etc. Wemo is mostly just a remote-control for me, but it’s still a much more convenient way to switch on/off freestanding lamps that don’t have a wall switch.

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      • Jack Gnasty says:

        And this is where the definition of ‘home automation’ begins to get murky as you said. When we start to incorporate thermostat driven on/off systems, then we can say we’ve had home automation ever since Honeywell incorporated a mercury switch into the classic dial thermostat. (And on a side note, not heating or cooling your home all day while away may actually be more expensive and shorten the life of your HVAC system than simply leaving it on a reduced temperature setting.) And we’ve had thermostats to do that for years.
        When I think home automation and smart home I think of ‘information’. I don’t think of motorized curtains and wifi enabled light bulbs. They are novelties that waste energy and/or solve a problem that doesn’t really exist. The real nut to crack is the ‘smart’ aspect, and I hope this is what Apple is working on. Manufacturers need a standard for all appliances to communicate and collect info. How much electricity is my refrigerator using in order to maintain a certain temperature? What rooms in the house are still pulling energy when everything should be shut off? How much energy are my solar panels adding to the system? Is it cheaper to heat my home by leaving the lights on in rooms versus using the furnace?
        Automated sound systems, lights, etc have been around for a while and they are expensive and won’t be getting any cheaper. But the ability to pull information and consolidate into a single interface for better decision making, that’s something we can all use.

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      • Ben Lovejoy says:

        Smarter is better, indeed, but I think we also shouldn’t underestimate the value of the more basic stuff. That’s an easier sell to consumers, and helps grow the market.

        Also, Tado does have a fair bit of intelligence built into it. It doesn’t switch the heating off while the home is unoccupied, it reduces the temperature based on the distance of the householders, and by default holds the temp at 15C overnight for precisely the reason you mention – because maintaining a temperature is cheaper than heating a house up from cold.

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    • towamp says:

      I’m with you on this; a couple of years ago I was interested in integrating a few of the smart home gadgets throughout my home. After doing my research for a few months and figuring what I really want I couldn’t let myself spend my $$$ and thought to myself “do I really need to turn the kitchen’s light off from a handheld device when I’m in bed?”

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    • lagax says:

      It’s about comfortability. Also, same was said (a little bit) about the iPhone, same was said (a lot) about the iPad. ;)

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    • rahhbriley says:

      Just to list off somethings I do that I don’t consider novelty, but practical. Just trying to provide some perspective for your overall opinion.

      I use IFTTT with my WeMo switches. I love IFTTT, but would love for it not to be needed in this particular instance, but I believe that is were Apple could come in. I have WeMo outlets that I can control via wifi, I also have their light switch. Without the IFTTT integration, I agree, it is more of a novelty. But with it, it is absolutely beneficial. I have my porch light set to turn on at sunset, and turn off at sunrise. All of my lights in my house turn off at midnight incase I’ve forgotten to turn them off. I have IFTTT programmed with my Jawbone Up band. When I fall asleep, it turns my bedroom light off, if I haven’t already. When I wake up, it turns it on (helping me get my butt out of bed). When I leave the house, all my pre-chosen outlets shut off. I don’t worry about “vampire” electricity waste at all any more. I do lots of other little things with WeMo, (Belkin/WeMo has appliances coming out that are pretty cool), IFTTT, Up, Hue and others that automates many practical tasks and information that same me time, money, and help with safety. The lack of practicality is limited only by the products available. It is a huge opportunity waiting to explode.

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  6. Very interested to see what architecture Apple uses. I’m a current Apple user AND Control 4 Home Automation user. I’ve been saying for almost a year that Apple should acquire Control 4. The only issue I have with my current set up is that the C4 app has to sometimes re-register with the system, the problem for most non native apps. If Apple uses an appliance (server) model, say the size of the current Apple TV, as the centralized brain for all the appliances, light switches, outlets, etc to communicate with and the iPhone/iPad as a remote, then I think they may have something.

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  7. hmurchison says:

    This is great news. I’m even more excited about WWDC now. I’ve got the Philips Hue lightbulb system and it’s pretty much superior to all other things. Ive found the setup to be super easy, control is easy and the range is excellent in my 1700 sq ft home. I haven’t gotten too crazy on the geofence features but I like things as simple as setting my lights to come on at a specific time in the morning. I like the ability to change the ambiance with colors. I’ll eventually cook up some nice IFTTT recipes once my system is further fleshed out. For me lighting is huge. It determines your mood in so many ways.

    My next purchase will be a door lock. I’m looking at the Kevo, Lockitron and others. I want that flexibility that comes from knowing I’ve got control over my locks from almost anywhere.

    Remote Webcams will come next. Visually being able to keep an eye on the inside/outside of my home is key. My problem with today’s solutions like Dropcam is expense and siloing of data on their servers.

    Future plans:

    Smart Window Blinds

    Smart Fireplace

    Radiant Floor Heating

    Smart HVAC Vents along with Thermostat

    Smart Air Conditioner

    Apple’s approach will most likely be creating a layer that supports multiple protocols and unifies the software. Testing of the hardware and certification means buyer confidence and that means mass market potential.

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    • herb02135go says:

      Wow! You can control it all from your bed and totally avoid any physical activity, except for when you use your fingers to download apps to track your health.

      If you thought ads at the gas pump were annoying wait until you see them on the door of your fridge.
      Will the Chinese government know when you run out of milk because there is no chip-enabled carton within range of the fridge?

      Yea, sign me up. Because looking in the fridge before I go shopping is so unproductive!

      I enjoy using my Samsung tablet to control the TV though as it offers a tv guide-like display so I don’t have to channel surf.

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      • herb02135go says:

        Forgot to add that my parents have motion sensing lights in parts of the house. They are already dirt cheap. It would be cool if there was a way they could sense a large object hitting the floor and alert someone, for example if my mom fell. Connect that with those bracelets that purport to do the same thing and it would be a good way to cross check the reliability.
        Patent pending.

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  8. Finally, I was waiting this for 2-3 years. Good that Apple finally figure it out this IS the next big thing.

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  9. I’d actually bet against this stuff being revealed at WWDC, but I bet they’re working on it for the spaceship campus, and will eventually release it for their customers.

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  10. Perceptive Automation’s Indigo application already does this on a Mac. And it performs very very well. It incorporates several HA formats (Insteon, Z-Wave and X10) They have an app called Indigo Touch that works on iPhones and iPads. Indigo lets you write scripts that can handle many different HA tasks, whether you are home or away.

    When I first started using Indigo it was to turn a few lights on/off. Now I run my sprinkler system using Indigo based on need using soil moisture sensors, my truck has an older auto start in which I have a spare remote wired to my HA system that will start and unlock my truck on the days I am working as long as the temperature is below 50 degrees. My motion lights are configured if one comes on, they all come on. My blinds open and close..I have leak sensors. I have the thermostat. I could go on…

    Apple is simply getting on the bandwagon but it may be a little too late.

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    • hmurchison says:

      “But it may be a little to late”

      The HA market is tiny. It cannot go mainstream until Apple and Microsoft jump into the fray.

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      • Ben Lovejoy says:

        Indeed – it’s easy to confuse the fact that it’s been around forever for it being a sizeable market. It’s something that’s been a niche market for a very long time.

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  11. markbriton says:

    I’m addicted to the Philips Hue system having spent more than I care to admit on their lightbulbs and strips! The IFTTT app controls them all for me and seems the way forward, very easy to configure and very powerful. For those unaware of the app you create rules like If the sunsets, then switch on my lounge light. If I arrive at home, turn up the porch light. If it’s going to rain today, turn my lamp blue. If i tweet “party!” then color loop my lights. Siri integration would be awesome.

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  12. rahhbriley says:

    Wonder if they are considering doing an app similar to Passbook or the rumored Healthbook to interconnect all these services. It would be slightly more complex I can imagine.

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