What the Apple Watch tells us about Apple’s smart home plans

Not even 24 hours after the fact, my inbox is filling with commentary about how the Apple Watch is the next big controller for the internet of things as companies rush to combine the new Apple hotness with the internet’s current obsession with IoT. But in chatting with developers, and given what we know about the watch and the smart home, this isn’t the magical unifier for the internet of things people are hoping for.

At the Apple event Tuesday CEO Tim Cook mentioned how the latest product, the Apple Watch, would be able to open doors with a swipe and help control your lights and thermostats. Both lighting control company Lutron and Honeywell were mentioned as partners. The example of unlocking your door was being demoed at a Starwood hotel in Cupertino, Calif. earlier this week.


[company]Apple[/company] is doubling down in its app store model and pushing that out to the myriad new devices that will populate the home. It plans to do this via its Made for iPhone program and HomeKit, which is basically a certification program plus notifications on your handsets. When you add the watch into the picture and the WatchKit development environment, very little changes.

Developers have told me that the Apple Watch has two sets of features via WatchKit: actionable notifications and glances. The actionable notifications are sent from an iOS app on the user’s phone and give the user a chance to take action. So like Apple’s Kevin Lynch demonstrated yesterday at the event, when someone sends an email invite you can see it and choose to respond on the watch. Given what I’ve seen from HomeKit integrations, a home notification might pop up when you enter your house asking if you want to turn your Philips Hue light bulbs on ([company]Philips[/company] is a HomeKit partner). That same notification could also appear on the phone, which Philips has shown in screenshots.

Glances are just that, letting people see actions taken by apps on the phone with a quick look. So if you clicked on your iOS [company]SmartThings[/company] app via the watch (this is a purely speculative example) you could see the temperature in your living room. Together this ensures that developers who build for the iPhone can offer relevant info or action on the watch, which could let consumers control stuff via the watch that isn’t necessarily part of HomeKit.

Philips HomeKit proposal.

Philips HomeKit proposal.

But when it comes to the HomeKit integrations that will let people control certified devices from their notifications screen in iOS 8 or via Siri, devices will still have to be certified through the Made for iPhone program and/or Apple’s certification. In this manner Apple’s sticking with a more closed ecosystem and relying on the handset to act as the brains of the smart home for now, which obviously has its limits. If you’re not at home, your iPhone-controlled house can’t take actions without you unless you pre-program the individual devices via their apps. The iOS HomeKit experience isn’t really bringing anything together as a whole.

The watch doesn’t change that; it merely moves the notification to your wrist. That’s super handy if you don’t have to touch the watch for the actions to occur, and less exciting if you do. If you have a handful of groceries and your HomeKit certified door lock senses your watch and then opens, that’s awesome. If you have to press okay, then it’s less so. Cook mentioned opening the locks in your Starwood hotel rooms. Starwood is working in partnership with lock maker Assa Abloy to build a custom software + hardware solution. Presumably it’s a bit different since most Android or Windows phone users would be miffed if they needed an iPhone just to unlock their hotel room.

That’s not to say the Apple Watch won’t be useful for other things. For example, some people find a lot of value in having notifications on their wrist. A Honeywell spokeswoman said the company is excited about having a notification appear on your wrist when you leave your assigned geofence, that lets you set your house to “Out of Town” mode with a simple tap. She added that a customer could also get a real-time snapshot of her home system in Glances.

The possibly mandatory link to the phone frustrates me, but if I could use it with Bluetooth headphones and store some music to take with me on a run or walk, that would be cool. Kevin Tofel thinks that’s a possibility and the watch has both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and some uncertain amount of storage. It also can help provide important context about the user when it comes to building home scenarios.

Apple Watch. Photo by Tom Krazit/Gigaom

Apple Watch. Photo by Tom Krazit/Gigaom

With the sensors built in, the watch can presumably tell if you are sleeping or awake, which means it could notify your house when you get up (at the very least it would know when you take it off the charger). At that point it could offer to turn on lights or initiate some wake up sequence. But given the tinge of the marketing around this yesterday (as Kevin noticed, Apple didn’t mention the word smartwatch once), Apple may not be ready to add context derived from the watch to the smart home. It sounds like it’s waiting to see which even wins out on that front, the more intuitive prescriptive home that Tony Fadell of [company]Nest[/company] is trying to build or the more practical rules-based automation that the rest of the industry is after.

My hunch is that Apple’s wait on that front stems from the fact that the prescriptive model is way to early for now and the programming model is too complicated. For now, Apple’s going to let your apps and your go-ahead manage your connected devices. And to make it easier it will curate the experience a bit with HomeKit and Made for iPhone, but it’s not going out on any crusades just yet.

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