Apple Eyes Home Automation

An Apple home automation platform would turn iOS devices into controllers for networked appliances.

a mobile phone, wrapped in an easy-to-use touch-based interface.

Networked devices and wearables fall short of that. They tend to offer similar functions but with more constraints, or they offer information such as exercise data that's potentially interesting to a few but isn't critical. Despite its attractive design and interface, the Nest Thermostat's value is shaky. Some users report saving energy with the device; others report the opposite. Ultimately, energy savings can be achieved with any programmable thermostat, or without one, because smart consumers can do what smart devices can do and more. Apple might be able to use its familiar iOS interface to offer a better user experience with appliances and wearables, but few of these devices will be as broadly useful or appealing as a smartphone.

Further magnifying Apple's challenge, the passage of time has made some aspects of the company's digital hub strategy obsolete. In 2001, Jobs cited five advantages to using a Mac as a front end for digital devices: the computer's large screen, the ability to run complex applications, the ability to burn CDs, the computer's more affordable storage, and the computer's ability to connect to the Internet.

Of these, only the first two remain relevant. Smartphones and tablets tend to have nicer interfaces than wearable devices or networked appliances. And they can handle complex apps more effectively than most appliances. But even so, these two distinctions are dwindling, because voice-based interaction does not require a screen, and because appliances like Samsung's T9000 refrigerator might run a full-blown Android operating system. Computing power has migrated from the center of the hub to the edges.

As for the other aspects of Apple's digital hub strategy, they're obsolete. CD burning no longer matters. Storage can be accommodated in the cloud or on small, affordable, high-capacity peripherals, and pretty much every electronic device these days is networkable or Internet-ready.

That said, Apple still has something to offer: It's one of a handful of companies that can actually manage an appealing interface, and it can ensure there's sufficient privacy and security in its device ecosystem. And its brand counts for a lot. It's a more recognizable name than other home automation players like ZigBee or X10 to most consumers.

But if Apple is looking to establish a product line to rival the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, it's not likely to do so with networked appliances. With Apple TV now a significant business, expect home automation to become Apple's next hobby.

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