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Smart locks: the next smart-home winner?

Nest paved the way for the smart home, showing investors that consumers would pay $249 for a next-generation thermostat. Now many are wondering what other connected-home products could become breakout success stories. In 2015, smart locks, and security related products in general, are the most promising.

For a smart-home device to succeed in the consumer market it must be as easy to use compared to its non-connected version and there must be a return for the consumer in terms of cash/energy savings or convenience. If connectivity merely adds complexity, a product’s in trouble.

Connected thermostats have proved a winner based on these criteria. The lock is a technology that has stood the test of time since metal keys and locks first appeared about 900 AD. If we’re truly ready to move beyond their elegant simplicity, we’ll need some clear benefits. Smart locks must make our lives easier.

A number of startups have risen to the challenge, including August, Kevo, Lockitron, Danalock, and Goji, which all have smart locks for sale in the $179 to $299 price range. Jason Johnson, who co-founded August along with designer Yves Behar, noted to me, “We wanted to wait until we felt there was a real problem to solve and not just make another gadget for the home that was kind of cool but you used it for a few months. We wanted to make something that would last for many years. It’s not easy to do. It’s not easy to find a product to do that in the home.”

As I discuss in more depth in my recent Gigaom Research report, smart locks offer attractive benefits: Being able to grant a house guest or a repairman short term access to your home via a smart phone, going for a run without taking your keys, and being able to use a friend’s phone to open your house in case you do the smart lock equivalent of “losing your keys.”

The trick in the smart home, of course, is always moving beyond the early adopter crowd. Right now, products are being developed that include everything from a connected water monitor for your fish tank to a connected toaster. Getting the broader market to pay for connected products is a different story.

I am optimistic about smart locks, partially because it is a very promising market not just in the residential sector but also in hospitality. Consider an Airbnb host who only wants to grant access to her apartment for specific periods of time and who doesn’t want to have to go meet her guest. Now she can just authenticate the guest’s smart phone for a set number of days. Business travelers are another opportunity. Instead of showing up at a conference and seeing a line of 20 people waiting at reception, your phone can check you in and serve as your hotel room key. I could see big chains like Marriott or Hilton integrating this functionality into their apps.

The risks? Like any newish technology there are imperfections. One reviewer complained that if he entered through the garage and walked by the front door, where his August smart lock was installed, it unlocked even though he was inside the house. One of the reasons the Kevo smart lock requires a simple touch sensor to unlock is that its designers felt intent to unlock was important in preventing situations like this. Others have noted that with features that automatically lock the door after it closes, stepping outside without a phone means being locked out of your house. (Of course, this feature can be turned off and, anyway, plenty of traditional locks work this way too.). Still, I think consumers will move past all of these minor glitches as they get accustomed to how the technology works. The technology is also likely to get better as data collected from a couple years of consumer use produces quicker product cycles and improved functionality.

Smart locks have a lot of benefits for consumers, and, longer term, businesses interested in maximizing customer experiences will see value in them. I suspect that will be enough to move smart locks out of the early adopter set.