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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.