It’s hard not to be excited about the Apple Watch. It’s capabilities go well beyond tracking steps, telling time and the occasional informational glance. When you pack so much technology into a small watch case, it’s reasonable that battery life won’t be more than a typical day. Much of the focus on the functionality of the Apple Watch has been push information, subtle interactions and the occasional call. Features that won’t require a significant amount of battery. It’s certainly going to bring a significant amount of change to how communicate and more importantly, the role our phones will play once we transition to a wrist-first society. If there is one area that’s ripe for innovation, it’s the control of home automation products. Apple Watch has the potential to disrupt and advance the future of smart homes. From the improved flow of information to wrist controlled devices, the Apple Watch is poised to become a must have accessory for any smart home.
I like to think that I have a smart home, but it might be time we re-think the definition. Up until now, products that could be controlled remotely by your phone or computer, offer efficiency and automation could be deemed as smart appliances. That’s an appropriate description and labeling. It would follow suit that a combinations of these products would help construct a smart home and for the most part, that would be on point. But there are aspects of a smart home that can be incredibly frustrating, making owners yearn for the simplicities of dumb appliances.
The list of products in my home reads like something you would find at the Apple Store. We use WeMo Light switches to control our outdoor lighting. Our main living room can be turned into a disco or extreme mood lighting with Philips Hue. Temperature is controlled by two Nest thermostats, one for each floor. Entry into our house has been automated thanks to a Z-Wave lock and the GPS on our iPhones. All of these products are integrated using SmartThings, a hub that does a fair job of bringing all of this technology together, so that it can act as one system. One action can trigger multiple events and products. When my iPhone arrives home (assuming I’m with it), an entry way hall light goes on for 20 minutes and the front door opens. For kicks, I’ve had Sonos introduce me, but that got old fast. This might sound like the future, but it’s not without an incredible amount of challenges that have yet to be overcome.
The absolute best feature of any smart home is the automation. I don’t need to look for my keys when I come home or enter my security code. It’s enormously helpful and having a light come on inside is great at night. Where things go wrong with smart homes, at least in my experience, is with the control. I’ve got a folder filled with apps. SmartThings can shoulder the burden of controlling all of them, but I prefer the individual apps. Dropcam, Nest, Harmony, Alarm.com, Philips Hue, WeMo, Logitech Alert and SmartThings. That’s eight apps I need to control my home. That’s one third of my home screen, dedicated to controlling my ‘smart’ home.
When I need to turn on my living room lights, I have to hope that my iPhone is handy. Looking for my phone to control my Philips Hue is a daily occurrence. Hue is one of the more peculiar smart lighting systems. Your light switch is perpetually on and you need to use your phone for control. The fallback is to switch to off and on a few times, but that will turn on your lights to full brightness. These also don’t work with a dimmer switch, so you have no options, but to use the app. Philips has a pricey button that will let you program three scenes, but for the most part, you need a smart phone to use your lights. The other Z-wave lights and thermostat can all be manually controlled. But again, you get the most benefit from using an app on either a smartphone or tablet.
Having to find my $650 iPhone 6, so that I can control my home is the ultimate first world problem. That being said, despite all of the advantages of a connected home, it can be incredibly frustrating at the same time. I say this as someone who works from home and is more than comfortable with spending time configuring things. I also know that it can be an incredible time suck. So for all of the convenience, you have to deduct points for setup and the inability to keep things simple. My background allows me to weather a higher level of frustration when it comes to technology products, but that’s a high bar for most home owners and an inhibitor to smart homes becoming more commonplace.
When Apple’s iOS 8 introduced support for widgets, that made things easier. I’ve yet to run into a Philips Hue owner who wasn’t overjoyed by the new widgets that were accessible from the notification center. You could configure any light scene to fire with a single tap, from your phone. It’s been far and away, one of the advantages offered to Android users prior to iOS 8.
Widgets, for all of their awesome-ness, still require you have your phone in hand. Here’s where things get interesting for home automation. With the Apple Watch, it’s always within reach. By all appearances, it will offer notifications on steroids. You can literally feel and see when you receive a notification. With the iPhone, chances of missing notifications, at least initially, are very high. Our phones are put down on desks, tables and often go missing for periods of day. The Apple Watch is always there, always on, always on the ready to deliver a notification. Roughly eighty percent of my notifications are communications from my house (actually the hub that runs it all). These are typically events like the front door opening or the arrival of a family member. I can be out back and away from my iPhone (provided I’m within range of my WiFi network) and I’m virtually guaranteed to receive the alert. These can range in importance. If you have young children at home, the front door opening is an important alert. If you’re using a DropCam as a baby cam, they detect activity, such as a baby waking up. Alerts and important information about events in your smart home have an infinitely greater chance of not being missed.
By far, the biggest impact of the Apple Watch on home automation could a shift in how things are controlled. Earlier I mentioned the hassle of hunting down a phone or tablet. This typically happens at the absolute worst times. We’re sitting down to dinner, not a phone in sight and we want to adjust the lights. Let’s take Philips Hue as an example. I imagine they’ll have an Apple Watch app that brought those widgets to your wrist. Goodbye first world problems. You can go down the line of apps I’ve outlined, each provided a single tap or widget-like functionality. Open Hue, tap all lights off. Open Nest, change temperature upstairs to 68 degrees. Open Alarm.com app and secure the premises! If you’re using a hub, one tap could represent a string of events across products. Boom!
If that’s still too much work, it’s only going to get easier. You’ll be able to control products that support Apple’s HomeKit by using Siri and you won’t be limited to using your phone. You’ll be able raise your wrist and say, “Hey Siri, turn off my living room lights and turn on the alarm.” No longer will you have to fish for apps, let alone search for your phone. It should also break down any barriers to use for less-technically inclined. The Apple Watch + Siri instantly becomes the easiest and most efficient way of controlling a smart home.
There is no single solution and Apple isn’t about to start manufacturing countless smart home products, if any at all. But instead, they are doing something far greater. By establishing HomeKit and enabling control using Siri, the Apple Watch may very well become the most important and missing piece for smart home.