Apple, smart homes, and the connected future

Some of the more interesting things, at least conceptually, I saw at CES 2013 were the smart appliances shown off by the likes of Samsung and LG. They're not anywhere near the sci-fi of Tony Stark's house, never mind Star Trek or the Jetsons, but they're a beginning. As a geek and fan of futurism, that's exciting. And it's an area Apple isn't playing in publicly yet, at least beyond the living room.

Here's the pitch we got from LG: You're at work when your wife/husband calls to inform you of last minute plans -- the boss/in-laws/etc. are coming for dinner. Rather than panic, Homer Simpson-like, and race home, you pull up your LG phone, activate your LG vacuum (think Roomba) and start the cleaning. Then you check your LG fridge and it tells you you're low on milk, and your Maps app highlights to best store to stop off at on your way home. You tap a few more buttons and your LG oven turns on and begins to pre-heat. That extra lasagna you made on the weekend is about to come in really handy. You smile, put your phone back in your pocket, and finish up work. You got this.

Huge conglomerates like LG and Samsung make a dizzying array of products, far more than the sharply focused consumer electronics of Apple... or Microsoft, Nokia, or BlackBerry for that matter. Those conglomerates, for the most part, have also settled around a single platform -- Android, full-on or embedded, to power all their wares. Pretty soon it'll be powering everything from appliances to home entertainment, utilities to adult novelties. Cars, where Microsoft's Sync and BlackBerry's QNX are still highly competitive, may be one of the few exceptions.

In years past it was Apple's ecosystem that gave them tremendous advantage. Thanks to iTunes and its international reach, Apple could take payments and sell digital goods, be it media or apps, in more parts of the world than any other company. Thanks to their traditional business, they could sell the computers and software to both create and complement their mobile devices. Thanks to Apple TV, AirPlay, AirPrint, and the like, they could connect you to your living room or office. Thanks to Apple Retail, they could ensure a great customer experience pretty much from concept to point of purchase. Hyperbole or not, Apple's reputation was built not only on "it just works" but "it just works together".

Similarly, in the past, accessories and peripherals served to add value to our computing devices. Now technology has matured to the point where our computing devices are serving as platforms to add value to everything else that fills our lives. It's not enough anymore to make something that makes the iPhone or iPad, or any device, better. The device now has to make everything else better, to unlock the potential of everything else around us.

Apple doesn't -- and I'd argue shouldn't -- make vacuums, ovens, fridges, and everything else that their competitors make. Right now, "everything mobile" and "everything smart" are in such early days, it doesn't matter. But one day it might. One day, funny as it sounds now, the halo effect from your kitchen could be felt even in your pocket. "Hey, you know, you're buying this LG fridge, if you get this cheap -- heck, we'll throw it in! -- big screen LG phone, you'll also be able to..."

And to some extent, that's fine. Apple has never taken a shotgun or machine gun-like approach. They've always been a sniper, content to let competitors spend endless ammunition flushing out the high-value targets Apple then laser's in on and takes out with a single shot. That could very well be their approach to the connected future. While Apple hasn't traditionally been big on partnering outside of content and components, there will no doubt be companies whose interests align and whose products complement what Apple offers with iOS.

There will be Nest thermostats and Hue lightbulbs and Nexia home security gear and all manner of toys, and while Apple's market share is significant, it will behoove even competing conglomerates to make iOS apps for their connected devices.

Perhaps it'll be based on something as simple as what Apple has already shown off for cars -- Siri connecting to non-Apple products, and shifting control from them, through iOS, to us. For users, the interface is the thing, so owning the interface becomes akin to owning the thing.

There will be a day when we have houses like Tony Stark, and the iPhones and iPads in our hands, combined with natural language technologies like Siri, gestures, and biometrics let us control everything in and around them.

Apple will play in that future. The only question is how?

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • At the very least apple has to be more open to partnering with other companies and technologies in the future. Being too closed off can frustrate people, and push them away. Especially when the future is clearly all about conectivity. Can't control the world, but you can take the steering wheel and steer it where you want it to go. Blackberry10 coming on january 30, check it out
  • Love the automated-home/device concept BUT.....NEVER EVER EVER should you be preheating your oven when nobody is home (or running your washer/dryer/dishwasher for that matter)
  • Agreed. The low hanging fruit here is going to be control of surveillance cameras, door locks and various sensors around the home. Appliance control is really on the periphery IMO.
  • They are just now figuring out how to make a phone bigger and add LTE. They need to catch up to other phone makers before looking to other areas.
  • What in the world are you talking about? How does a company that makes a 7.9 and 9.7" tablet have any issue making a phone bigger. It's ok to hate Apple ...just try to make some sense while you're doing so.
  • Those aren't phones. Consumers have shown time and time again they want bigger screens. The GS3 got a big sales boost after the iPhone 5 was announced. It and the Galaxy Note II are both selling incredibly well. More manufacturers are making larger than 5 inch phones. It'll be years before Apple catches up to them.
  • Then the novelty of the awesome looking screen wears off and people realize the large screen is't practical. Cant use it one handed, barely fits in your pocket, add a case on top of that and the thing is the size of a tablet. There will always be a market for large 5" screens but there's no reason to think that's the whole market. BB10 is rumored to be right in the sweet spot, one handed and 2 handed use. Where the iphone 5 is still a purely one handed design. Unless you have small fingers. Im going with the 4.2" display on blackberry 10 for my next phone. I think even that's pushing it.
  • Bigger and LTE and catch up? What are you talking about? What's the point of having a big phone if it's not practical; like in your pocket/hand practical. When LTE was first introduced, it was a rare / small unestablished market and the chips were a drain on batteries; big batteries = big phone. Catchup? To what? What's in front? LG (or who ever) would need to make an App for their appliances to run on an iPhone/Android and they're good to go. There's your 'connectivity'.
  • An automated home run entirely on Android? Oh dear... the security issues boggles the mind.
  • Apple's belief is that if they can't make something fundamentally better, they don't do it. And I agree with that premise. Creating something "just for the heck of it" it a tremendous waste of resources and manpower.
    On a similar note I don't get why a company has to have its tentecles in every aspect of everything. I'd say - stick to what you do well. This applies to both hardware and software/services. As you can probably tell I'm not thilled to see Facebook phones, Apple Search engine and the likes.
  • All of this will be used to track/trace/spy on you. They will promote it as flashy and cool but it will be used to spy on you. Your habits will be documented and then fines/fees will be added to your bills. Former CIA director came out on the senate floor on CSPAN, this year, and said that the technology in the new washer/dryer, TV, toasters, all of it will have backdoor snooping tech that will watch and track everything you do and that our 4th amendment does not apply to these devices, because the public has not voiced opposition.
  • do you have something to hide?
  • Just develop the iRobot Apple. It would make all the rest useless.