Last month, my father asked me why he couldn't open his garage door with an app on his iPhone. Trying not to get too technical, I tried to explain the sort of home infrastructure that would be required and why that might be impractical. "Theoretically Dad," I said, "the machine that opens the garage door would have to somehow be connected to your home network." I felt as though the problem was manageable by someone relatively technical, but I couldn't envision a solution for the less technically inclined. Particularly if it involves the wireless configuration of a device (the machine) that has no console on it.
So now, after visiting Liftmaster at CES 2012, I know why I'm a journalist and others (like the folks at Liftmaster) are the ones making cool things possible; like iPhone controlled garage door openers for mortals. Here in Las Vegas, as can be seen from the embedded video below, at a pre-CES press-only briefing, Liftmaster was showing off a new garage door opener that can be remotely controlled by an iOS device (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch), an Android device, or a BlackBerry
So, how did Liftmaster do it? As can be seen in the embedded video, Liftmaster has done something pretty clever. The garage door opener does in-fact have to be connected to the home network. But instead of trying to find a way to configure the garage door opener for a WiFi connection (or for a hard-wired Ethernet connection), Liftmaster uses a radio transmitter that connects directly to a residential router over hard-wired Ethernet. That transmitter then wirelessly exchanges signals with the garage door opener (which has its own radio). It's not significantly different than the way most visor-mounted garage-door opener remotes work over a wireless frequency. The difference is that the "remote" is mounted to a home router instead of a car's visor.
Then, the Liftmaster app that runs on your smartphone or a tablet communicates directly with that home router-mounted remote. Unlike today's simple visor-mounted remotes that can open a garage door, close the door, or toggle the opener's lights from a short distance, Liftmaster's smartphone and tablet apps can work from anywhere (so long as they have a connection to the Internet) and they can detect the current state of a garage door (whether it is open or closed and how long it has been in either state). According to the company's marketing manager Beth Bjorlo, the app can also be used to toggle house lights on and off.
In addition to supporting iOS, BlackBerry, and Android with custom written apps, there's also a mobile web application that makes it possible to remotely access all the controls through a Web browser. For example, this approach might come in handy if you have a Windows Phone because, on the Windows Phone platform, there isn't an app for that.