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.
Shawn Dreelin says
Be careful what you wish for. The concept of one app to rule them all sounds great until you realize you are not getting firmware updates from the vendor through the universal app. Case in point: newer C by GE devices can connect directly through the Google Home app or through the C by GE app. I upgraded a bunch of older tech (Z-Wave & Zigbee) to newer C by GE stuff based on Kevin’s recommendations. At first I integrated through the Google Home app. That was super simple. Power up the device, open the app and add it to Google Home. But when I added some of their products to the mix like a remote button and motion sensor (which do not work with Google Home), I found I had to have the lights and smart plugs in their app to be able to control them with those devices. When I switched them to their app, all of a sudden all my devices had firmware updates. This was the same for WeMo smart plugs I’ve used in the past. So while having multiple vendor’s apps is a pain, it at least keeps you safe with firmware updates….provided you manually check, but that’s another issue for later discussion. For those wondering, I see no differences in service with C by GE devices connected directly versus through the app. Direct connection seems to only use the Bluetooth radio where through the app uses WiFi for Google Home and Bluetooth for their app.
James L Busby says
Stacey: Awesome comments! Right on the button! I feel exactly the same way. Technology is far too complex. The simplifiers of the world will win big going forward.
“A tunable white light bulb should never require an app. […] a door lock shouldn’t require a separate app.”
I agree, the challenge is that most manufacturer (marketing departments) will disagree. They are looking to capture the customer, establish a personal relationship (via email) to upsell more products and (paid) services. Don’t forget all the data you can collect and potentially monetize.
If they all would be compatible without app, there would be no need to buy another (more expensive) brand device, if you can just buy the cheap clone and integrate it into your smarthome. The companies are “degraded” to pure hardware producers.
I also agree with the first comment about updates: it needs to be integrated into a common standard, the device needs a fixed URL for the latest firmware and a common function to initiate the update, that can be called by any app.
I got multiple Zigbee devices connected to my Echo Plus, but if I really care about security I need to reset the devices, pair them with the manufacturer’s app, update, reset again, then re-pair with Echo Plus. That’s just crazy. How many times a year do you want to do that?
Fazal Majid says
I see apps as a signal that a device has a limited life. Apps get discontinued all the time, or stop getting updated and eventually succumb to an OS update, like iOS going 64-bit only. That’s why I avoid IoT solutions that don’t have an open API or at least a reverse-engineered open-source implementation like Home Assistant or Tasmota. Ironically it is now cheaper to add IoT functionality to a device than a proper screen and buttons, but in many cases the latter are the way to go.
+1 to the firmware issue. There’s a bunch of apps on my phone I only use for firmware updates (Sonos and Vocolink – I’m looking at you!)
Starting with firmware updates thru the Home app I think will go a long way, but making this “standard” will require Google to make this “standard” on their Home app too. Do IoT device makers even want to be in the app business? For the basic lightbulb apps – obviously not. Their attention to detail (or lack thereof) says that they don’t. But an Eve Home or Nanoleaf or Sonos? Absolutely they do!
Back to HomeKit though – I’ve seen some UI changes in how Apple delivers updates to the HomePods thru the Home app. I wouldn’t be surprised if 3rd party firmware updates are on the near term horizon.