How Apple Could Jolt the Smart Home Energy Market

Apple, like Google, has a habit of causing major waves throughout the markets it enters. Could the master designers behind the iPhone, iPod, iTunes and Mac, one day revolutionize the way consumers manage the energy consumption of their gadgets and even homes? In effect, can Apple do what it did for digital entertainment and cell phones, for the energy of computing?

Last week a site called Patently Apple, unearthed what it says is a patent for a smart home energy management system dashboard from Apple. According to the patent, Apple’s dashboard product would use powerline networking (using the electrical system itself for the communication portion) and specifically the HomePlug standard to enable users to manage the energy consumption of computing products like laptops, iPods, iPhones and printers. While filing a patent on the topic doesn’t necessarily mean Apple will launch such a dashboard, Apple’s efforts could go far just in showing the computing industry how important energy management will be.

It’s clear from the patent that Apple is focusing on energy management through the lens of gadgets and computers. Unlike other companies that are building standalone home energy management hardware and software dashboards — from Google, to Tendril to eMeter to Microsoft to GE — that look at whole-home energy and the energy of appliances, or connect with smart meters, I don’t envision Apple straying too far away from the energy of computing. And specifically the management of the energy of its own computing products.

Being able to make the energy information of its computing devices even just more transparent would be useful to offer to its hardware customers. Offering an interface that customers can use to manage, or even vary, the charge of various Apple gadgets, would also be something that could help Apple’s move into the broader digital home, following devices like the Apple TV.

Other consumer electronics companies are moving into energy management via the home automation market (like Control4), or the appliance market like GE. But an Apple energy gadget offering could be an even more powerful combo than what is currently emerging from the nascent home energy management market. As some analysts have pointed out the future of the home energy market in the long term will lie with consumers, and companies that “get” what customers want in terms of easy design and functionality.

As Gartner analyst Zarco Sumic told us “The vendors that will dominate will be the ones who know how to market, sell and meet the needs of the consumer space. It is a consumer technology play. It is not a utility play.” That’s Apple’s forte: sleek design and oh-so-easy-to-use interfaces.

Intel appears to have a similar strategy to Apple in terms of energy management, at least in terms of seeing it through the lens of devices. Intel has been developing prototypes like its home energy management concept gadget, but I don’t envision the chip maker turning that into a real product. Intel’s research is more like Apple’s in that it’s interesting to show just how important the energy of computing will be going forward for IT firms and developers.

The energy consumed by information technology — including broadband and cellular networks, computing devices that connect to the networks and data centers — makes up roughly 2 percent of the world’s total carbon emissions, according to The Climate Group. In 2007 almost 50 percent of that carbon footprint was made up by edge computing devices like PCs, peripherals and printers. But by 2020 57 percent of that carbon footprint will come from PCs, peripherals and printers. In other words the energy consumption of our always-on gadgets and computing devices will only grow over the next decade, and companies will need to figure out innovative ways to track and manage that energy consumption.

Apple’s ability to single-handedly disrupt markets, shouldn’t be underestimated. The company remade the mobile industry with its revolutionary introduction of the iPhone, and has been dominating the digital music market with the iPod and iTunes for years. For those not familiar with the Apple-rumor mill that ebbs and flows in tune to upcoming presentations from Apple CEO Steve Jobs (the latest info is swirling around the Apple tablet) there’s an entire ecosystem of Apple rumor blogs and media that track and speculate on Apple’s famously stealthy moves (see GigaOM’s The Apple Blog here).

While I don’t begin to pretend what Apple intends to offer in terms of energy management, Apple is clearly weighing its options and through this patent signals how computing companies will have to increasingly take into account the importance of energy.

Related posts: Control4 App Store: Home Energy Management Trailblazer?

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