It’s always been a question of when — and not if — in assessing Apple’s plans for the connected home, although a better question is probably “how.” As in, how will Apple attempt to bring its brand of design and usability to the fragmented market for app-controlled home products, which ranges from speakers to thermostats?
We may be getting closer to an answer. Apple has assembled a team to work on some kind of connected home hardware, according to an article in 9to5 Mac. The article is scant on details but fraught with possibilities.
Basically, the report said Apple has a team looking at some kind of hardware for the smart home because it thinks the category could be huge. It is not alone in this idea. The report added that Apple being Apple, it also might stop this development effort at any time. And while the source quoted said Apple is unlikely to target less mainstream devices like thermostats or smoke detectors (a la Nest) speakers or home control panels are a possibility.
The idea of Apple building control panels strikes me as odd since the control panels in many smart homes today — either those that are DIY or professional installed — rely on iPads, either freestanding or embedded into walls. Apple already has a control panel.
However, even as Apple was introducing its HomeKit effort to tie several connected devices together using Apple’s Made for iPhone/IPad/iPod program, its clear that any high-quality connected home would need some kind control box that stays inside the home to handle device interactions when the phone is out.
For example, if you program your Hue lights to turn on when you’re walking in the door (as evidenced by your iPhone coming into range) that’s great, but what happens if you’re on vacation and you’d like to keep the illusion of you coming and going in effect? Without something in the home that also has that programming, it won’t work. That’s why the original speculation around the Apple TV box also acting as a hub made sense, even if that didn’t actually happen.
With its focus on the mainstream consumer and huge brand, I think Apple could do well hiding the brains of the smart home in the form of some entertainment-oriented device. Outside of the now-hot DIY market many of the professionally installed smart home or home automation setups are mostly concerned with security and managing TV and audio throughout a home.
So speakers, as the article mentions, or perhaps Apple TV boxes, could be an option. Even the service provider market is looking to link the gear in the connected home through the television — Comcast is placing Zigbee chips inside its set top boxes for example. So while SmartThings or Revolv could appeal to the DIY geek crowd and Nest’s products to the early-adopter set, TV or home entertainment devices may be the way to get the iPhone toting masses on board.
Whatever the device is, I think it will have to provide some kind of awesome function from day one, even without other devices to link to it. And it will have to hide the brains of a home hub inside, which will make it pricey. So a TV makes sense. Perhaps an internet connected speaker like Sonos or Aether offer, or maybe a voice-controlled personal assistant that combines Siri with always on internet access and enough computing power and radios that it could function as a voice-activated know it all in the home or the invisible hand controlling your locks, lights and more.
Thanks to its history selling connected devices in its retail stores and the information it will glean from HomeKit apps, Apple will be in a good place to understand what consumers already have in their homes and what physical devices it could build that would be best optimized to take advantage of those. As I discovered when I started down the path to a smarter home, the brains for a smart home are little use without devices to control.
So by waiting to see what people adopt and looking for a standalone product that offers value as well as acting as a Trojan horse for the computing and radios to control other connected devices, Apple appears to be playing it safe when it comes to the connected home and the hardware that will control it.