Why Apple is poised to own the Internet of Things

Craig

Craig Federighi takes the wraps off Apple’s HomeKit at WWDC 2014. Photo: Roberto Baldwin/The Next Web

Imagine getting home after a hard day’s work in the year 2016: There’s no need for keys as you approach your house, since proximity sensors in the lock mean a simple iPhone voice authorization will open the door for you.

The house has been alerted to your arrival, so your Nest thermostat has adjusted the temperature to suit you, while your Philips Hue connected light bulbs change the lighting to fit your mood — predicted by analyzing your heart rate and schedule for that day. The iWatch on your wrist runs Jawbone app, letting you know your caffeine levels are a little high and that you should wait until 7:30 p.m. before going for a jog to ensure maximum sleep quality that night.

Five minutes after putting your car keys down, dinner’s ready. You’re running late, but your smart immersion cooker — which has been monitoring your location all day — has delayed cooking until the optimal start time.

And so it goes. This Jetsons-like future is the kind of thing sci-fi writers have been imagining since the 1960s, but now it’s nearing reality. In fact, with a few exceptions, pretty much everything I’ve described already exists.

Thanks to cheap smart sensors, Moore’s law miniaturization and the ubiquity of Wi-Fi, the so-called Internet of Things is tipped to become tech’s next revolutionary wave.

And Apple’s set to own it — not by rushing out Internet-connected refrigerators or toasters, but by using its HomeKit framework for connected devices to streamline the Internet of Things experience for other companies. Instead of picking one or two areas to work in, Apple wants to be the glue that connects all these different products and the data they collect.

“HomeKit is going to give us one centralized app to handle all of this information,” says Zach Supalla, founder of Spark, a company that creates development tools for smart devices. “It’s going to give you one place to visit to turn off your lights, turn up your thermostat, etc. Everything will be able to work perfectly together — just so long as you have an iOS device.”

The Phillips Hue smart lights are one of a number of companies letting you control your home lights with your iPhone.

Phillips, maker of Hue smart bulbs, is one of a number of companies letting you control your home lights with your iPhone.

Time and again, Apple has proven that it’s a company able to create simple solutions to problems that have bamboozled technologists. Take the MP3 player, smartphone or tablet, for instance — all of which existed prior to the iPod, iPhone and iPad, but none of which ever looked the same after Apple worked its magic.

A lot of people think Apple missed a trick earlier this year when it bought Beats over Nest Labs, the smart home company founded by former Apple employee Tony Fadell. While Apple got a company that makes trendy headphones, Google snapped up a genuine Internet of Things pioneer for $3.2 billion.

But Apple’s goal is far bigger than just becoming another maker of smart hardware. It’s out to fill a critical need: making it simple for all those connected gadgets to work together. It’s an enormous opportunity for Apple, says Supalla.

“There’s a real need for a company to do that,” he says . “If you think back to the World Wide Web, there was an incentive for companies to agree on a common language, since they all needed to be understood by whichever browser it is that you were using. With the Internet of Things, there’s no clear incentive. There’s no one interface for linking all of these products, because what people do instead is to create their own apps.”

The Mellow smart immersion cooker is like having a master chef in your house.

The Mellow smart immersion cooker is like having a master chef in your house.

While we only have a few Internet-connected devices — each with their own app — it’s fine. However, as the number of devices that need to communicate with each another grows to dozens or even hundreds, managing these interactions is going to be a real challenge if each uses its own app. This is where HomeKit, which was introduced at this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference, will come into play.

Apple has been an ecosystem-building company since Steve Jobs first announced the idea of the “digital hub” back in 2001. Since then, this idea has expanded, as we’ve seen with the iPhone and iPad (and potentially the iWatch).

Despite filling different needs in our lives, each of these devices drives sales of their companions. The Internet of Things will take this idea one step further.

“In the case of Apple, it is likely that these technologies will make users get even more value from their mobile devices,” smart sensor company SmartThings CEO Alex Hawkinson told me earlier this year. “The average household on our platform gets more than 15 push notifications from SmartThings per day, which is representative of the value the customer sees in giving their home a voice.”

Having a company like Apple entering the space boosts broad consumer awareness and validates the market, signalling that “now is the time when the smart home is going mainstream,” he said.

Apple’s unique approach to data

Want to quantify your tooth brushing? You'll be looking for the Kolibree smart toothbrush then.

Ready to quantify your oral hygiene? You’ll want the Kolibree smart toothbrush.

There’s one other thing that will help Apple capitalize on the Internet of Things more than any other tech giant.

Almost any conversation about the Internet of Things inevitably gets around to the question of privacy, and what data collection will look like in an age in which even your toothbrush is constantly mining personal information (shout-out to Kolibree, the world’s first connected electric toothbrush!).

How will other tech players handle the Internet of Things? Google will look to improve its services and Web advertising. Amazon will try to use data to sell users more products. Both of these approaches involve a degree of snooping that attracts negative publicity.

Apple, on the other hand, is perfectly positioned due to what it’s looking to do with the Internet of Things: drive hardware sales rather than collecting data from individual users.

So long as you buy the latest iPhone, iPad or Mac, Apple is happy for the software part of the equation to be a bit like the free food and event tickets that casinos hand out to their top customers to stop them from leaving. It’s a way of making your iPhone, iPad or iWatch more central to your life — not of letting Apple find out every possible thing about you for better targeted ads.

Apple might later decide to add HomeKit hardware once it sees what works and what doesn’t. If it does, we’re in for some exciting products, and Apple’s well-placed to build them. But even if it doesn’t, there’s no compelling reason why Apple can’t come out on top in this battle to tech’s next frontier.

Apple was late coming to the Internet back in the 1990s — only really embracing the Web fully after Steve Jobs made his triumphant return to the company.

Cupertino’s not going to let the same be true this time.

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About the author

Luke DormehlLuke Dormehl is a UK-based journalist and author, with a background working in documentary film for Channel 4 and the BBC. He is the author of The Formula: How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems, And Create More and The Apple Revolution, both published by Penguin/Random House. His tech writing has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, Techmeme, and other publications. He'd like you a lot if you followed him on Twitter.

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