A little over a year ago, I purchased an Ember mug for my mother for Christmas. The mug keeps beverages at a set temperature for a few hours or so and can be controlled via an app on your smartphone, for example to customize the temperature or see how much charge is left on the mug. So while I was excited to give my mom the mug, I was also worried she’d hate the app aspect of it.
I was in luck. Turns out my mom hates cold coffee more than she hates managing the app. She has since created pre-set temperatures for her coffee, tea, and the hot buttered rums she enjoys during the winter. In fact, she loves the mug so much she is currently trying to gift one to me. However, despite my hatred of cold coffee, I have persistently declined.
I’ve declined because I cannot bear to put another app on my phone. I don’t want another connected device that requires me to set up a password-protected account in exchange for some marginal level of convenience. I already have more than a hundred apps, tied to my everyday smart home products, the one-off light bulbs or sensors I test — never mind those associated with travel frequent flyer programs, delivery services, fitness tracking, and productivity. And let’s not forget the wide assortment of entertainment and educational apps I have installed, including Duolingo, Libby, and Spotify. Even my Christmas lights have an app.
So, given the insane assortment of apps I have, why would I draw the line at a warming coffee mug? Well, why wouldn’t I? As I settle into my new home, placing sensors and gear throughout, I’m weary of the digital clutter that takes up space, both physically and virtually. And as we continue to connect and digitize everything, more people will experience this fatigue, too.
Even now, I’m not the only one. Kevin has been trying to creating a Google- and Facebook-free existence focused primarily on privacy, but it’s also his attempt to reduce the mental clutter of having so many different services and apps. Indeed, among the things he’s hoping to see at CES this coming week are ways to reduce the number of apps associated with smart home gadgets.
One way to do this is by creating a standard that lets people control products through a monolithic app or service. For a long time, Apple has enabled this ability for products that connected via HomeKit. Users can buy HomeKit devices, bring them onto their network using their iPhone and QR code, then control most of their features through the Home app on their iPhones. This increasingly feels ideal.
To be sure, many of the makers of HomeKit-certified apps pull out certain additional features so users are forced to download an app. A connected HomeKit lock might require users to download its app so they can properly calibrate the lock in their particular door, for example, while a light bulb maker might only make custom scenes available to users that download its app.
As to creating a standard, it’s something I am also hoping we see with Project CHIP. Namely that many different types of devices will have a good level of functionality embedded in the CHIP standard so that users buying those devices could onboard and control the devices from a variety of companies without suffering through a dozen apps.
In the meantime, I also wish device makers could be a bit more aware of the functionality their devices offer and the value of any app associated with that functionality. A tunable white light bulb should never require an app. Barring an Airbnb situation or heavy traffic from service people, a door lock shouldn’t require a separate app. Only devices that can offer significant value (such as gradient lighting for your TV or detailed cooking instructions) should force customers to download an app.
In the case of the coffee mug, I’m not even sure it really needs an app. Frankly, a dial and a light indicating the battery life would suffice. I’d much rather see products designed with intelligence that don’t actually need connectivity. Caspar, for example, makes a wonderful bedside table lamp that uses sensors for 90% of its operations. For those who want to use the Caspar as an alarm clock, it offers an app that enables the user to tell the lamp what time to start brightening the light.
Perhaps in the future, a CHIP-certified version of the light would let me tell Alexa to use that as my alarm and set it for 6 AM all without me requiring the app. For something like that to work, we’d have to have smart home hubs that adhere to a standard and feature ways to communicate with a variety of objects through Bluetooth. Instead of a phone acting as the primary in a device ecosystem, the home hub would.
We may be seeing that soon, as a rumored Google device has Bluetooth inside and the ability to use it along with Thread to connect to multiple peripherals. Eliminating the need for an app also helps tie devices to a home instead of an individual. For example, my robot vacuum has an app that lets me see the map it has made of my home and also lets me send the vacuum to specific areas. But while its high-value functionality makes downloading the app worth it, my husband gets frustrated that there’s no way for me to give him access to the app, either on his phone or via his email. That inability means he can’t send the robot to vacuuming jobs unless I’ve created a routine for it in my app and then tied it to Google or Alexa. We have a similar struggle with a connected cooker that requires him to use my phone if he wants to follow the recipe, or requires him to log in as me on his phone, which then forces the cooker to log out on mine.
So, going forward I hope that companies help rid me and other device consumers of app fatigue by embracing a standard that helps bring most functionality to a single app and/or hub, designing products that don’t need apps, or allowing their devices to work with a hub as opposed to a phone.