Apple Can't Sell Me a Smart Home
I hope it's not true that Apple's next big bet will be on the "Internet of things." The concept is a useless and dangerous one, and now Apple's powerful marketing machine may join Google's in selling it as progress.
The Financial Times reports that Apple may use its June 2 developers' conference to unveil a new software platform allowing users to control a variety of "smart home" devices via the upgraded version of the Apple TV box. That would include using your iPhone to dim lights, operate a thermostat, unlock doors, watch video from security cameras, program a washing machine or turn on an air conditioner before driving home from work.
Apple will not make the actual smart devices. Instead, it will allow equipment manufacturers to make them compatible with its new system, then certify the products, as it does with its existing Made for iPhone program.
The market for smart home hubs is now fragmented. Amazon.com's site that sells the things suggests that customers "shop by controller" to find out which devices work with which hub. There is no all-embracing solution, and no compelling reason to "smarten" your home. If you're ambulatory, you can probably handle the lights and the thermostat without much undue exertion. Sure, you can have your porch light go on when you're a few blocks from your house or get a push notification on your phone when a neighbor's kid breaks your window with a soccer ball, but who has ever lost any sleep about not having that functionality?
To get help with trivial tasks you never even thought could have a high-tech component, you need to learn -- and have your entire household learn -- yet another new interface. For your trouble, you have to deal with unruly, periodically malfunctioning gadgets such as an alarm function that will forget to wake you up or motion sensors that alert you when there's nothing going on. Early consumer reports suggest an intelligent home makes for nice dinner conversation but is not much of a quality-of-life enhancement.
Apple probably has the capability to work its classic Steve Jobs-era magic on the Internet of things: Analyze a chaotic market, pick the most useful functions developed by others, design a friendly interface and move in like a juggernaut. About 2 million Apple TVs are sold every quarter, so the device's interface and primary uses are familiar to an army of fans. There's a good reason to buy one simply as a media hub. And once you do, why not use the smart home functions that come with it?
God forbid it does. Apple knows how to make high-tech products look and feel unthreatening, and the Internet of things is full of threats the Cupertino, California, company cannot completely remove.
Every device made by a third-party manufacturer runs its own software. No matter how carefully Apple vets it, there will be so-called "zero-day vulnerabilities" that testers fail to notice. The increasing number of such devices creates incredible opportunities for governments and hackers. Security cameras can be turned on you and those intelligent doors can be unlocked remotely by thieves, or by government agents who think your home holds something of interest to them. Hackers have already messed remotely with smart technology in cars, blocking brakes in motion, jerking the steering wheel and honking unexpectedly. Last year, Tesla cars were found to be vulnerable to interference through its application programming interface.
Imagine someone running all the faucets in your house while you're away. The Internet of things makes it perfectly possible.
We expose ourselves to risks of surveillance or malicious tricks every time we use an Internet-connected device. It's always a trade-off: We take these risks to be able to communicate quickly and seamlessly, to learn, to work and to consume copious amounts of media content. These are powerful benefits that would be unavailable to us without the Internet.
I can turn on hot water or flush my toilet without using a smartphone, though. The trade-off the Internet of things is selling is not worth it, and having Apple -- and Google, which bought smart thermostat producer Nest this year -- push it on consumers is not going to change the world for the better.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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