It feels like it’s 2001. Tons of companies had released tons of MP3 players, and they all sucked. The iPod was just months away.
Soon, Apple will change the game and release something perfect, a killer app that will finally make smarthomes work. That’s going to happen, right?
I honestly have no clue, but I can’t wait to find out. In fact, I’m getting impatient.
At the I/O developer conference on Wednesday, Google announced Google Home. It looks a lot like Amazon Echo, but it’s apparently better because it blends seamlessly into the Google ecosystem with new Assistant software. That means peerless search power, great voice recognition, Nest integration—it sounds exciting! But details are very thin. We don’t know when Google Home will hit the market. We don’t know how well it will integrate with the already chaotic climate of connected home devices. However, we do know that Google is aware that Amazon paved the way for these kinds of gadgets. A Google executive even tipped his hat to the Echo during yesterday’s event.
But Apple must be waiting in the wings. The Cupertino kids have a long tradition of watching competitors launch crappy products and then pouncing on the opportunity to fix their mistakes with a perfect product. The iPod is one of the most famous examples of this. Every electronics company on Earth tried to make a portable digital music player, and then Steve Jobs put 10,000 songs in everyone’s pocket. A few years later, the black turtleneck enthusiast eclipsed that accomplishment by creating the iPhone, a device that made other smartphones look downright dumb. Based on what’s happening now, the challenge of winning the pocket in 2001 or 2007 is akin to winning the home in 2016.
The clues are all there. As our lives become more connected, the opportunity to interact more naturally with technology is obvious. The idea that we could live in voice-controlled houses is also very Jetsons, not unlike the promise of a pocket computer. Why flip a light switch when you can talk to your house? It really sounds neat.
That said, it’s not obvious that smarthomes would really improve our lives. The idea that you can talk to an always-on microphone in your kitchen—the premise of Google Home—instead of tapping away on a smartphone is intriguing. But it feels pretty unnatural if not creepy. It’s hardly clear whether talking to your house is useful or a nuisance. You could’ve wondered the same thing about smartphones in 2006. They’re neat, but they suck. And we might not even need them. Then came the iPhone.
So what’s Apple going to do now? It’s been two years since Apple announced HomeKit, a platform that was supposed to provide a portal for iPhone fans to enter the sparkling world of smarthomes. It’s been two years. There are a handful of HomeKit compatible devices on the market, but we haven’t heard a peep from Apple’s hardware team. There were rumors that Apple TV could become a home hub, but that hasn’t happened beyond the fact that you can ask Siri about movies through a sleek aluminum remote.
Meanwhile, everybody else is hustling. Wink was one of the first to offer a cohesive smarthome ecosystem, but it didn’t work. Samsung has been pushing its own version of a smarthome platform called SmartThings, but it has serious issues, too. Amazon has recently announced tons of connected home products can be controlled with an Echo. And now Google wants to join the fray in earnest with an Echo competitor.
Apple’s WWDC is less than a month away. We actually learned the exact date (June 13) because Siri “leaked” the news a few weeks ago. Tim Cook and friends will probably announce iOS 10—which you wonder might earn the name iOS X. We can also hope for some hints about new hardware, whether it’s the iPhone 7 or some mystery magic box that will turn your home into a massive Macintosh. As always, we don’t really know anything about what Apple plans to do because water is wet and the sun sets in the west. Heck, maybe Apple will announce its imminent entry into the car business.
What would be exciting, however, is a killer app for the home. Smarthomes have been as shitty as MP3 players were at the turn of the century, and tons of companies want to be the ones to figure out how to make people invest money in seemingly frivolous new gadgets. Apple has a famous track record for pulling off these sorts of feats and convincing us that we need some gadget we didn’t even know we wanted.
So it’s your move, Apple. Samsung and Amazon and Google and everyone else is struggling to make smarthomes appealing. Let’s see if Apple can make them work.