Apple could learn a lot from one of its offspring.
Ahead of Monday's start to the Apple developers conference next week, there's gossip aplenty that the company plans to enter the smart home market. But before it jumps into the pool, Apple would do well to consider how Nest and others have fared.
Nest, which makes a gorgeous $249 learning thermostat, was co-founded by Tony Fadell, a former Apple employee. Fadell was behind the iPod and iPhone, so he's got some experience launching insanely successful products. Now his vision is to revolutionize dull-as-dishwater home products like thermostats, locks and lighting, saving energy and adding convenience along the way. But it's a difficult vision to realize.
Nest's second product, the $249 Protect, a smart smoke and carbon monoxide detector, ran into problems with its gesture recognition feature (arguably its main attraction). Early last month, the company stopped selling the Protect, and now it has issued a full recall while being vague about when it will begin selling the detectors again.
The lesson, one that Fadell and others spoke about when the company launched, is that it's very hard to disrupt a fundamental technology that's been around for hundreds of years: the American home. From basic mechanics to entire infrastructures, so much has to change in order to make a difference, and there can be no glitches. Front doors have to open. Pipes can’t freeze. Waiting for fixes in version 2.0 is not an option.
The rumors are that Apple is not planning anything as audacious as what Nest is trying to do, that it wants merely to provide the software to hook everything – from security systems to lighting and air conditioning – together.
But one has to wonder why consumers want a program that runs their dishwashers and heating units.
There's the obvious fact that do-it-yourself smart home items, such as thermostats, water detectors, door sensors, remote cameras and door locks, already work with iPhones and iPads, as well as Android phones and tablets. Tap an icon and I can see what's happening in my front yard. Tap another icon and I can see the temperature in my home and find out if any windows are open.
So what could Apple bring to the picnic that others haven't already unwrapped? Another potato salad? More cheese and crackers?
The answer is integration. At the moment, there's a distinct lack of it in all these products. It would be nice to use just one app for all or set them to react in concert. Unlocking your front door, for example, could turn on the living room lights and kick on the A/C. AT&T's Digital Life service and hardware package does some of this, but it's expensive, works only with a few products and is available in limited areas. Lowe's Iris smart home system is more flexible, offers a wider array of products and is less expensive, but even Lowe's has been slow to garner partners.
The problem is that there is no basic communications standard for any of these automated home and security products. Some work over Wi-Fi; others use a wireless protocol called ZigBee or use Z-wave -- or their own version of Z-wave. Getting them all to work on the same wireless system is one issue. Then there's the problem of having them all talk to each other. That’s the issue Apple hopes to address.
What Apple isn't likely to do is start building new home appliances. There will be no Apple refrigerator. And I certainly wouldn't want an Apple front door lock.
Why? Look at how Nest has struggled. It has a great product, but building out from that -- even though the company has the right ideas -- has proven tricky indeed. Just because Google paid $3.2 billion for Nest is no guarantee of success.
The Apple ecosystem is another roadblock. Licensing fees and what some companies see as onerous engineering requirements make for more expensive products and a lack of flexibility. And there's the question of whether the most promising product on the market, Nest's thermostat, would work with Apple on a more intimate level now that it’s owned by Google. Most companies are very wary of being trapped into an Apple-only ecosystem. It's the same kind of resistance Microsoft experienced more than 10 years ago when it first wanted to get into the automotive arena.
Finally, there's the practical reality of smart home systems and devices. I've been testing smart home products for years, and they can be a godsend -- or a curse. It's a joy to be able to turn up the heat from 200 miles away so that your home will be toasty when you get there, or to be able to see if a storm caused any damage, or whether a delivery arrived. But when those systems fail -- when a balky thermostat causes the temperature to plummet or a lock fails to recognize your PIN -- they can become a sci-fi movie nightmare.
Which scenario Apple may face in the smart home market remains to be seen.