Why Apple Will Enter the Home Automation Market

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For years, home automation has been the exclusive province of the very rich or extremely technical.

Companies you’ve probably never heard of, such as AMX, Control4, Crestron, Elan, HomeLogic, Colorado vNet, Vantage and Zenpanion have provided the platforms and many of the fundamental products, while integrators took care of the installation and service for many people.

Or, very dedicated and technical DIY enthusiasts have cobbled together their own ingenious solutions.

Recently, the major phone carriers have gotten into the act, and rumors suggest Google, Apple, Microsoft and other consumer electronics companies are working on home automation.

The reason everybody’s jumping is that home automation is in the process of making a transition from “hardly anybody” to “pretty much everybody.” So everybody wants a piece of what will definitely be a massive new industry.

In five years, the majority of homes in the United States are likely to have significant home automation happening in their homes — voice-controlled thermostats, Bluetooth-unlocking door locks, lights on self-learning timers, automated pet feeders, doorbells that ring your phone rather than a bell in the house and much more.

The reason? Kickstarter, mostly.

IOS-Controlled Home Automation is a Grass-Roots Movement

If you follow the trends, you’ll notice that a huge percentage of the most drool-worthy and successfully funded projects on Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites are home automation products and services that support iOS.

Digging deeper into the trends, the vast majority of these projects involve taking home automation tasks that used to be expensive, complex and proprietary and making them cheap, simple and smartphone based.

Even more so than the general app universe, the crowdfunded sites tend to support iPhone or iPad either primarily, first or exclusively.

That makes sense on two counts. First, the iPhone is the leading smartphone brand in the United States. And second, the demographic of people willing to invest in home automation skews heavily in favor of the iPhone and iPad.

Here are some of the coolest new products and projects in home automation, most of which have been crowdfunded and all of which are controlled by iPhones or iPads.

The Wonderful World of iOS Home Automation Stuff

The quintessential iPhone-controlled home automation product line is Belkin’s WeMo. The company makes compatible light switches, all-purpose electrical switches, a motion-controller switch and a baby monitor, all of which connect to your home WiFi network and are instantly discoverable and controllable with an iPhone app.

The iOS-controllable lighting market is further along than other aspects of the new phone-centric home automation revolution, and with more options. Products like the Philips Hue Connected Bulb, Lumen Bulb, Insteon LED Bulb and GreenWave Connected Lighting Solution enable you to use your iPhone to set timers, change colors, dim lights and perform other fun and practical lighting tricks.

I really like the front-door technology that has emerged recently, replacing door keys with intelligent, sharable electronic keys, all from an iPhone. Products like the Lockitron, KeyMe, and UniKey let you “answer the door” even if you’re on the other side of the planet. And the DoorBot, which works seamlessly with the Lockitron, according to people who want you to buy both, letting you also see who’s at the door and hear the doorbell ring from your iPhone.

You’ve probably seen the Nest Thermostat at the Apple Store. This is an amazing device, because it “learns” your patterns of preference for what the temperature should be and when. It pays attention to your presence or absence and adjusts the home temperature accordingly.

That same company this week announced a Nest Protect product, which is essentially a really smart smoke detector (which also detects carbon monoxide). Instead of just going “beep” whenever you burn toast or whenever it needs batteries, the Nest tells you (in English) where the issue is and what it’s detecting (“Heads up. There’s smoke in the living room.”) — All the Nest detectors in the house will tell you that, and so will the iPhone app. That same app will tell you the batteries’ status, and other information and even dial 911 at the push of a button. Another crowdfunded project called Canary uses a wide range of sensors for all-purpose notification about air quality and security — basically alerting you to anything happening in the house that could be a danger.

Too lazy to water the plants and lawn? Cyber Rain is an irrigation system you control with an iPhone and other smartphones. It’s smart enough to not water when rain is predicted, getting forecasts from the Internet. It will also alert your phone when something isn’t working right.

Perhaps the coolest thing about all these one-off products is that they can be unified into single controller programs using crowdfunded products like the SmartThings Pack or the Revolv system.

When Apple Enters the Market

Because both crowdfunded and big-brand smartphone-controlled home automation solutions favor iPhone, the Apple will have an ecosystem of hardware, software and service makers in place when it enters the market. Those iPhone-supporting customers will already have a passionate user base of consumers who have already invested in thermostats, LED light bulbs and other physical hardware. The existence of this market will cause new entrants to support Apple’s solutions because that’s where the home automation big spenders will have already congregated.

I believe the platform for Apple’s Home Automation server will be the Apple TV product everybody’s been predicting for years.

This system is likely to offer an App Store and development platform for existing home automation companies to create products for. And the consumer will probably control it with an iPhone or iPad while seeing the whole system on the TV.

The combination of iPhone’s predominance in the “sweet spot” of the market, plus the rise of the crowdfunding movement has made the iOS platform the central environment for the awesome new world of smartphone-controlled home automation.

  • iPadCary

    I like dis guy.
    I think he’s really got what it takes t’give those FATCATS down in Washington the what for!

  • ottomate

    Great piece Mike. I think this is another part of the jigsaw – http://autoho.me/19nkvaG

  • GEOKLV

    Hello Mike; hello everybody. Mike, I don’t understand the “how” and “why” (must be a very subtle reason), whenever I log in PULSE and check my favorites (among them being Cult of Mac), by merely observing the article titles, I can immediately distinguish yours. You have a very distinct manner to put down words and your pieces are so fluid, crystal clear and eloquent (yet very naturally, simply put), that it is always a charm (and good food for thought) to absorb them. That said, this time, you have once again chosen a very interesting topic and you have built a neat artwork of writing for us (at least the laypersons, if I speak for myself). Always be well and remain prolific for our sake. Best regards and take care. George from Hellas (otherwise Greece).

  • coffeetime69

    I’d love to see Apple work on a robotic food prep center for kitchens. Kind of like the Star Trek “replicators,” but without the “replication” magic. You’d load up modules with various raw foods – some would be refrigerated, some would be frozen, and some would be at room temp. KInd of like food “toner cartridges.” Then, using a touchscreen, you’d browse what you want it to make (with recipes from around the world), and how many servings you’d like, and it would do the rest.

    It could be programmed so that each person in the family got not just food that they like, but food that fell within each person’s unique guidelines. If someone needed to lose weight, it would track nutrition and calories. If someone in your family couldn’t tolerate wheat or tomatoes or whatever, or if they were diabetic with strict sugar / salt intake guidelines, it could adjust to that.

    It would know what dates that foods were added to “modules,” assuring that you only eat food that is within the pull date, but also that everything is properly rotated. And because it would create food based on individual servings, I would think it could be designed to be more energy efficient than today’s kitchen.

  • aardman

    Always thought that home automation is a natural for Apple but it needs more than just locking/unlocking doors, setting the alarm, and turning appliances on and off. That’s not compelling enough for most people to spend the money and make the effort to install the necessary modules and fixtures. There are products out there but those are unestablished no-names that make one hesitate to take the plunge. Apple needs to come out with an integrated solution where installing, activating, and programming the system is so surprisingly easy that it gets some serious word-of-mouth. That’s really Apple’s best advertising. How many have bought Apple products not because of some ad but because their friend/relative recommended it? Now I’m rambling.

  • naywilliams

    Really good article Mike – definitely agree on your premise. I wrote something for the Bajarins in June (before I joined GreenWave) and my position was that Apple was already in Home Automation through their sales of Nest, Hue, etc., partnership with Nike on wearables, and most importantly the iBeacons announcement at WWDC. http://techpinions.com/5-ways-to-accelerate-connected-home-adoption-and-yes-apple-should-get-involved/19352

  • Steven Quan

    Just bought a condo a year ago. If I had the money I’d purchase a set of Hue LED lights for my hallway for mood setting, and a NEST for controlling the temperature. I already have an electronic lock which requires a 4 digit pin for my entry door.

    Speaking of electronic door locks, I can not understand why anyone would want a bluetooth enabled door lock? When would you ever have a practical use for this over a traditional electronic door lock? Why would you suddenly have the need to unlock your door remotely?

    My father was staying at my place. I added a new 4 digit pin code and told him so he could open the door anytime he pleased. After he left, I erased the 4 digit pin so it couldn’t be used anymore. I think this works significantly better than a bluetooth door lock.

    Some people say, they want the peace of mind to be able to lock the door remotely. Excuse me, why would you leave your door unlocked? That habit should have been ingrained in your mind since childhood. Always lock the door before you leave. Yet, another argument for wireless bluetooth door locks that makes no sense whatsoever.

  • alphaman

    Home automation, yes. Your presence is detected by motion and your identity is confirmed by your iWatch. Total personalization of your environment the moment you walk into a room. This is the stuff Bill Gates built into his house on Lake Washington last century, but again, couldn’t capitalize on because he didn’t have the vision to bring it to the masses.

    Now, throw in an Apple designed humanoid home robot, and I’m *really* excited. I always thought the NS5 in the Alex Proyas/Will Smith “I, Robot” looked like an Apple product…

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Mike ElganMike Elgan writes about technology and culture for a wide variety of publications. Follow Mike on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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