Opinion: Apple's iPhone future for the connected home

Today’s Apple [AAPL] rumor machine is finally seeing the light and agreeing that the iPad mini will be introduced at an event subsequent to the iPhone 5, which seems obvious to me, so for today’s story I want to talk about Apple’s next big iOS opportunity, the connected home.

[ABOVE: Don't be too surprised when Apple makes its move -- remember Knowledge Navigator back in '88?.]

The intelligence machine

No, I’m not just discussing the fabled Apple television. Nor am I going to dig deep into speculation regarding the Tony Fadell-designed Nest learning thermostat, tempting as both topics are. Instead I’m talking about the rise of Machine-To-Machine (M2M) technology and the way it’s going to augment our everyday lives.

So, what’s an M2M device? At its simplest these are network-connected devices with their own intelligence which can speak to a remote server or other device elsewhere in order to share data and receive instructions. 

Some examples of these could include:

  • eReaders, including an iDevice;
  • The Nest thermostat
  • Connected automobiles which interrogate smart city traffic control hubs for route information, parking space discovery, and more. 
  • Smart patient monitoring systems -- these could be your iPhone
  • Smart water systems detecting leaks 
  • Connected domestic appliances capable of monitoring food stocks and making food delivery orders on your behalf
  • Home audio systems which allow music to follow you round the home
  • Automatic temperature control systems which respond to your needs
  • Delivery, vehicle, family tracking systems

While Apple’s devices could arguably have a part to play in any of these developments, back-end systems aren’t traditional focus areas for the company. This leaves the provision of consumer-focused solutions: automotive control systems, domestic control systems, white goods, as tempting possible future sectors in which it could apply a little innovation. 

Oh, don’t expect a rash of white goods with little grey Apple logos on. Don’t sit back for the firm to rush out washing machines and microwaves and kettles and slow cookers and refrigerators. 

Apple isn’t Samsung involved in some scattergun approach to churning out cheap consumer durables while quietly engaged in weapons manufacture. Apple’s approach is incremental. It ships when it’s ready, not because it must.

We may be looking a long way down the road but Apple already has multiple solutions which could go a long, long way to creating an M2M future:

Voice control

Siri isn’t just about asking your iPhone to marry you. While it’s in beta at present, and may remain so for some while yet, the technology is interesting because it relies less on the processor and more on the cloud. In theory you could take any device, pop an A4 processor, microphone and Wi-Fi radio inside and you could control that device with your voice. There’s lots of talk for voice control within the future Apple television. Where else might this be useful? Your door entry system, perhaps (in conjunction with fingerprint or retina scan technology), your coffee pot, your hot water system, your microwave. Let imagination be your guide and think on how effective voice controls could improve the way you interact with the objects in your car, home and office.

The apps

The exponential growth in apps across the last few years has been remarkable. That growth will continue as every brand, publisher, movie and music studio, bank, insurance and health insurance firm and everybody else recognize that apps help seal relationships with their audience. One day it seems likely there will be an app for everything, including your car and domestic products. Using your iOS device (which at some stage seems inevitably likely to include Macs) you should be able to manage any iOS-compatible item in your home. iOS is of course another advantage.

Security and privacy

Apple’s iOS platform is picking up converts in the enterprise. Partially that’s because the platform is more secure than any other mobile OS; partially it’s because Apple seems to be more in tune with the need for user privacy than others -- Google, after all, uses your personal demographic and location data in order to pump ads in your direction. Enterprise users don’t necessarily want to share their location with anybody else, least of all a firm whose mission is to sell that data for cash.

This commitment to security is really, really important. If the future of the digital home is of a forest of connected domestic devices, then it is in everybody’s interests to ensure that user privacy is kept sacrosanct. We can’t rely on government regulators to stay ahead of technologies which are evolving so fast. If privacy matters to you, you’ll migrate to those products and services which most promise to support your privacy. Because you don’t want your life to be searchable.

Satisfaction

Consumer users already rate Apple’s solutions as being the best. They used and enjoyed the iPod; then they got a Mac which they also liked and now they have an iPhone. Satisfaction records are high and the majority of Apple device users won’t migrate to another platform. 

That’s Apple’s key advantage when it chooses to enter any new consumer market, and with each iPhone its congregation of happy users grows. This means if the company were to test the digital home waters with the release of something as generic as a connected electric kettle, millions of consumers would immediately want to pick one up. Which isn’t to say Apple’s about to introduce that sort of product -- but if it were to do so it would sell millions of the things.

iCloud

Apple’s decision to place its iCloud servers in the US will eventually see the company tested by data protection regulators worldwide. They will want to ensure the privacy of that data and also check that data stored in the US is held under the same strict controls as it might be if held in other territories. They will want to know about the integrity of that data as it blips between servers on the way to the iCloud, and on the way back. Legal definitions of what’s right and wrong when it comes to cloud services provision haven’t been fully tested in the courts yet, but they will be. Google, Amazon and other players will be drawn into this debate, most likely within the next 12 months as regulators act to ensue compliance with local law.

Despite that coming challenge, Apple’s iCloud will become an ever more important element to the company’s product offering. Applied to domestic devices, it should help ensure the ultimate home electronics control and monitoring system. 

Design

Apple’s products win design awards. Consistently. Year-after-year. That’s good design. 

What could this mean? It means that should Apple choose to enter the digital home market (and I think it will do so) it has a chance to deliver well-designed connected devices equipped with the kind of features we used to watch movies to fantasize about. Cloud-connected devices which you can control from anywhere, secured with military strength security, and characterized by intuitive ease-of-use.

It is also possible the company may skip the opportunity for the connected home, and instead deliver open SDKs for use by other manufacturers in their provision of iOS-compatible domestic items or vehicle control systems.

Why would Apple want to penetrate these new industries? To maintain growth. Here’s three relevant recent research reports to illustrate the opportunity:

Will Apple make moves on the digital home? It already has: the iPad and the Apple TV suggest it. The company’s focus on developing mobile technologies has given it a lightweight low power OS from which to base future product families. Personally, I think the company would be foolish not to at least consider what it could bring to the space.

Got a story? Drop me a line via Twitter or in comments below and let me know. I'd like it if you chose to follow me on Twitter so I can let you knowwhen these items are published here first on Computerworld.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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