If you believe the weekend rumors, Apple will announce a connected-home platform next week at WWDC. But before you get too excited about an iThermostat and an iFridge and an iCamera watching you sleep, consider this: If Apple does get into the home-automation market, that doesn't necessarily mean it'll make smart-home gadgets of its own.
Sure, the Nest thermostat looks like an Apple product; after all, it was designed and made by ex-Apple employees. But Apple doesn’t need to start up its own smart-home hardware division, or even buy a company in that space. That's because plenty of companies are already making awesome connected-home products that solve real-world problems right now. And pretty much all of those gadgets work with the iPhone already.
So Apple could just ink partnership deals with the best players in the category. If it did so, the company would enter the market with a couple of potent weapons: tight iOS integration and the Apple Retail Store.
Slow and steady wins the smart home race
Consumers looking to smarten up their homes essentially have two options: You can go for a comprehensive managed system or just dip your toes in bit by bit.
Managed systems are popular if you’re building a brand-new home and can install everything at once, or if you’re comfortable turning to companies like Comcast, AT&T, or ADT to install the whole kit and kaboodle and then charge you monthly to monitor the service. I don’t know about you, but my experiences with AT&T and Comcast don’t make me super-eager to put them in charge of my entire home.
The bit-by-bit approach has the advantage that each gadget you add solves a particular problem. You get a Nest so you can save money on heating and cooling, you get a Dropcam so you can watch your home, and you get a Belkin WeMo plug so you can set up an IFTTT recipe that has the lamp in your foyer light up when you approach your front door. You know why you’re installing each piece, rather than just chasing after the vague promise of a “smart home.”
The problem with bit-by-bit is that each of those gadgets uses its own app. Companies like Revolv and SmartThings are working on integrating multiple gadgets from different companies into a single easy-to-use app. But Apple could do them one better by adding smart gadget integration into iOS 8.
When Apple added Twitter integration to iOS 7, it suddenly became easier to share everything on Twitter, no matter what app you were in, and to log in to new apps with your Twitter credentials too. Adding similar integration for smart-home gadgets would be just as great, whether Apple wants to hand-pick preferred partners or to provide open APIs in the iOS 8 SDK. Either route would let these gadgets work with Siri, for starters, and provide a lot more benefits too.
For example, Apple’s iBeacon technology uses Bluetooth to pinpoint the location of your phones; that information can then be used to send you targeted information. That's why iBeacons have been particularly touted for use in retail. (For example, you could be in in Macy’s looking at a shoe display when an iBeacon sniffs out your phone and pushes a notification offering you a discount on the very shoes you’re gazing at.)
iBeacons haven't really made it into the home yet, but that could change soon. Mike Elgan at Cult of Mac has outlined a particularly vivid scenario for using iBeacons in the home. (My favorite part: “You spill some mustard on the floor, so you say: ‘Siri, I spilled something.’ As you leave, you cross paths with the floor-mopping robot, which Siri has dispatched at your request.”) If home iBeacons could keep tabs on exactly what room you’re in and send connected home gadgets to clean up after you, please sign me up.
Setting up smart gadgets could be streamlined with iOS integration too. Technologies like Bonjour and AirPlay already take some of the confusion out of networking: your Apple gadgets seem to just see each other and know how to work together. Imagine how great it would be to plug in a new connected camera or sensor and have your iPhone recognize it instantly.
Fighting for shelf space
Smart-home companies will still want to make their own apps, and they should: Once the gadget is installed, the app you use to control it becomes the entire experience. Whatever umbrella app Apple comes up with to give you a look at your smart home as a whole could be as handy as location-aware, context-sensitive Passbook, or as utterly useless as Game Center.
But Apple has a huge carrot to use in getting the very best gadget makers to partner with it: the Apple Retail Stores. Every maker of connected-home hardware wants to be in Apple Stores—they’re always packed, and they make more money per square foot than Tiffany. Apple could create a wall of smart-home “Made for iPhone” products and watch companies fight to get their own answer to the Nest, the Dropcam, and the Philips Hue lights included in it. Those companies would surely be more than willing to use Apple’s software tools, or whatever else the company might demand of them. And as connected-home trends evolve, Apple doesn’t have to worry about developing new hardware to keep up: Just restock the shelves with the new hotness, and boom, done.
We'll all know a lot more about Apple’s connected-home plans (or lack thereof) on Monday June 2, when Apple convenes its WWDC keynote. If iOS 8 adds meaningful connections to the connected-home market, we promise to stop wishing for an iWatch or Apple-branded TV. (Until the next Apple event, anyway.)