Smart locks: the next smart-home winner?

Nest paved the way for the smart home, showing investors that consumers would pay $249 for a next-generation thermostat. Now many are wondering what other connected-home products could become breakout success stories. In 2015, smart locks, and security related products in general, are the most promising.

For a smart-home device to succeed in the consumer market it must be as easy to use compared to its non-connected version and there must be a return for the consumer in terms of cash/energy savings or convenience. If connectivity merely adds complexity, a product’s in trouble.

Connected thermostats have proved a winner based on these criteria. The lock is a technology that has stood the test of time since metal keys and locks first appeared about 900 AD. If we’re truly ready to move beyond their elegant simplicity, we’ll need some clear benefits. Smart locks must make our lives easier.

A number of startups have risen to the challenge, including August, Kevo, Lockitron, Danalock, and Goji, which all have smart locks for sale in the $179 to $299 price range. Jason Johnson, who co-founded August along with designer Yves Behar, noted to me, “We wanted to wait until we felt there was a real problem to solve and not just make another gadget for the home that was kind of cool but you used it for a few months. We wanted to make something that would last for many years. It’s not easy to do. It’s not easy to find a product to do that in the home.”

As I discuss in more depth in my recent Gigaom Research report, smart locks offer attractive benefits: Being able to grant a house guest or a repairman short term access to your home via a smart phone, going for a run without taking your keys, and being able to use a friend’s phone to open your house in case you do the smart lock equivalent of “losing your keys.”

The trick in the smart home, of course, is always moving beyond the early adopter crowd. Right now, products are being developed that include everything from a connected water monitor for your fish tank to a connected toaster. Getting the broader market to pay for connected products is a different story.

I am optimistic about smart locks, partially because it is a very promising market not just in the residential sector but also in hospitality. Consider an Airbnb host who only wants to grant access to her apartment for specific periods of time and who doesn’t want to have to go meet her guest. Now she can just authenticate the guest’s smart phone for a set number of days. Business travelers are another opportunity. Instead of showing up at a conference and seeing a line of 20 people waiting at reception, your phone can check you in and serve as your hotel room key. I could see big chains like Marriott or Hilton integrating this functionality into their apps.

The risks? Like any newish technology there are imperfections. One reviewer complained that if he entered through the garage and walked by the front door, where his August smart lock was installed, it unlocked even though he was inside the house. One of the reasons the Kevo smart lock requires a simple touch sensor to unlock is that its designers felt intent to unlock was important in preventing situations like this. Others have noted that with features that automatically lock the door after it closes, stepping outside without a phone means being locked out of your house. (Of course, this feature can be turned off and, anyway, plenty of traditional locks work this way too.). Still, I think consumers will move past all of these minor glitches as they get accustomed to how the technology works. The technology is also likely to get better as data collected from a couple years of consumer use produces quicker product cycles and improved functionality.

Smart locks have a lot of benefits for consumers, and, longer term, businesses interested in maximizing customer experiences will see value in them. I suspect that will be enough to move smart locks out of the early adopter set.

Image courtesy of Maxiphotoa/iStock.

Is security the next piece of the smart-home puzzle?

After the success of connected thermostats in the home, many are wondering what the next major point application success could be. I’ve looked at everything from connected water heaters to connected lighting to connected refrigerators. But the application that looks most promising right now is security. Has the smart door lock finally arrived?

In October the Yves Behar designed smart lock named August went on sale and the Kevo smart lock from Kwikset and Lockitron have been on the market for the past year or two.

My measure for all smart home products is twofold:

  1. Is it easier than what we have now?
  2. Is there a return for the consumer, either monetary, convenience, or in improved user experience?

As the number of connected devices in the home and elsewhere proliferates, many products are likely to just add complexity to people’s lives. These will entertain early adopters but struggle in the mass market.

In terms of security, the age old lock and key is very simple and, in many respects, elegant. So any smart lock must bring value for the consumer.

Some of that value comes from cost avoidance: never having to call a locksmith again because the key essentially exists in the cloud and the equivalent of losing your key is losing your phone. Never having to carry an actual key in your pocket is appealing in the way that Apple Pay makes the wallet one less thing to carry. And being able to easily give others access to one’s home with an electronic key for a set period of time has a major convenience payoff (think the babysitter, the repairman or even an Airbnb guest — the hospitality industry is a big potential market for smart locks).

The number one question surrounding smart locks is, What happens if your phone dies? The good news is that smart locks still accommodate traditional keys. They just add wireless- and sensor-based unlocking capabilities. Additionally, one can always access the respective company’s app on another’s phone log in and unlock that way. Asking to borrow your neighbor’s phone if you’re locked out is much easier and more convenient than calling a locksmith.

The other major public perception sticking point relates to software security on the phone and vulnerability to hacking. I spoke recently with Phil Dumas, the President of Unikey, which makes the Kevo along with partner Kwikset. Looking at the market, he noted, “We realize that the smart lock market is so new and sensitive that if there would be any security compromises, that it would set the whole industry back so we erred on the side of caution. It’s way more secure than your bank account. We’re very confident in the security model we put together.” Unikey’s vision is total elimination of the keychain, and the company has met with the hospitality industry as well as the automotive industry to examine other markets aside from the home.

So If 2013 was the year that Nest showed that thermostats would be an integral part of the smart home vision, could 2015 be the year that a small group of smart lock makers show that getting rid of your physical keychain might just work?

I’m cautiously optimistic here. Great technology is technology you don’t notice. And with some of the better smart locks out there, we’re dealing with a completely passive system, meaning you don’t have to take out your phone to unlock the door — the lock simply anticipate your needs. And the appeal of, say, being able to leave one’s home and go for a run without taking your key, has value.

Sooner or later the keychain is likely to go away just as the wallet eventually will merge with the one item people always seem to take with them: their smartphone. Projections have one third of the world using smartphones within the next 24 months. It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when. The market will begin slowly. But I think we’re nearing a point where it truly becomes easier and more convenient to use your phone for entry rather than lugging around that old keychain.

August raises $8M for its smart lock

August, a smart lock company that hopes to launch its product in the spring has raised $8 million in first round capital led by Maveron. But are such locks ready for prime time?