As we’ve added more connected devices to our homes and more connectivity to cars, we’ve become locked into the app economy. What the heck ever happened to the good ol’ web?
I recently asked myself that question as I was testing a de-Googled smartphone; it runs the open source version of Android, or AOSP. I was also considering moving to a pure Linux handset. But as I quickly came to realize, because we’ve become an app-centric society, I really can’t move to either of them.
My web question had begun to take shape when we bought a Tesla Model 3 last year, consolidating from two cars down to a single vehicle. (No haters please; this was before the Musk takeover of Twitter!) We love the car. Most importantly, my wife loves the car, and she’s only owned one other car that she felt the same way about. (That was a 2004 Acura TL, for the curious among you). But without the Tesla app on a traditional smartphone, the car is only just usable.
Sure, I can — and have — used the plastic key card that comes with the Tesla. That gets you basic functionality to go somewhere.
Don’t have the app? For us, that would have meant saying goodbye to all of the reasons we bought the car, such as pre-conditioning the cabin, remotely unlocking the doors or trunk, or planning a route with Tesla Superchargers along the way. There’s simply no way to use most of the car’s advanced features in a browser. Nor would we have been able to get any notifications from the car, or to view captured camera footage in case of an accident.
And for the most part, the same situation applies to the smart home today. Last time I checked our house, we were up to around 40 connected devices, which work with Amazon Alexa, Apple HomeKit, and Google Home. A few work across all three, thanks to Matter. But how many can be used with a standard browser connection instead of a dedicated phone app? Far fewer than those that can’t.
Indeed, with very few exceptions, I need the specific mobile apps from the different brands of, for example, bulb, outlet, or light switch. Or I have to use the main smart home ecosystem apps, such as Amazon Alexa, Apple Home, or Google Home.
To manage my home network, I have to use my Eero app. Any routines or scenes in my smart home have to be done in an ecosystem app. I can’t view my connected cameras over the web, nor can I open my garage door in a browser when I’m nearly home. The list goes on and on. And while I wouldn’t want to use the web to turn on a smart bulb, it would be nice to see the current state of my devices or a live video feed from a connected camera using a browser.
As I noted, there are a few exceptions. Google recently introduced a feature to view Nest cameras over the web in a browser, for example. That said, I don’t have any Nest cameras, so it’s not helpful to me.
Perhaps the biggest exceptions to the rule of “smart homes require apps” are some of the third-party smart home hubs. Both Home Assistant and Hubitat, for example, provide a high degree of connected device access through the browser.
Yes, there smart home apps for both platforms available on the app stores. And yes, most people likely use those apps as their central smart home interface. But it’s not required, as most of the functionality these provide is available in the once mighty but now lowly web browser.
It might sound like I’m complaining about a first world problem here. And on some level, I’d agree with that criticism. We are, after all, in the age of the smartphone. But that doesn’t mean that the browser should be relegated to a second-class, at best, citizen in this situation.
I’d like to see more smart home device makers embrace relatively newer web technologies to bring the smart home experience from behind the fence of app stores. Progressive Web Apps (PWAs), for example, bring much of the app experience and functionality to the browser. While PWAs may not fully replicate an app’s feature set, there’s plenty they can do, such as provide notifications, be updated centrally, and behave securely, just like a smart phone app.
Until this changes, I’m locked into the app economy on either an Android or iOS phone. So no de-Googled or Linux handset for me. Once the fastest-growing king of the internet, when it comes to smart homes, the universal browser got kicked to the curb.
Tim Coote says
oh dear. You are describing exactly the types of issues that I tried to get around with the design of BG’s Hive system. In the architecture, Things are composable and define their UX in a browser. For the most part, sensors and actuators are not complete enough to merit a UI: they are, mostly, embedded in constructs that make more sense to a human. Thus a ‘thermostat’ is something to sustain a decent living temperature in a home, and that temperature would vary by time of day and place to place, so it must contain several thermometers and actuators.
Without the composability abstraction, you cannot combine Things very easily – and it’s very hard to test their combined behaviours. A browser based model can work well enough for observing, managing and controlling consumer IoT systems.
Rick Lithgow says
Why are you using so many apps? Why are you using so many cloud based products. Things like the Hubitat Elevation do everything 100% locally. No multiple apps. No cloud based products sending your data back to the mother ship. I have over 200+ physical devices using zigbee, z-wave, and cloud connect. You can integrate Tesla easily into Hubitat. X:Trigger turns on cabin warmer, garage closes after 100 ft away from garage. etc. For the love of all that is holy and unholy. Stop using multiple cloud based ecosystems!
Couldn’t find the date of article so maybe this “Google recently introduced a feature to view Nest cameras over the web in a browser” was really recent that time. I’m commenting because I had Nest cams since 2017 and I could always stream and manage them in a browser.
Stacey Higginbotham says
It was the newer Nest cams that wouldn’t work in browser. Those were added.
I never got the love of having everything being an app on a tiny screen. If you have a desktop or laptop computer, it is very likely the screen is *at least* 10″x12″ (15″ diagonal) which is surely a lot easier to see and use than a 3″x6″ phone?
Why can’t we have a browser version in addition to a phone app? There are some things like home automation rules that are a million times easier to do in a browser with a real monitor, real mouse, and a keyboard rather than a touch screen device. Typing in passwords on a phone is painful when you have to use all those symbols and capital letters and numbers. Copying and pasting is easier on a computer rather than using a phone, and you often want that ability when working with complex devices or rules. A browser is available on every device that can access the network, where a phone app is specific to Android or Apple.
Originally, I was pretty fed up with trying to create automations on a phone for SmartThings, and when that hub “released it’s smoke” after little more than a year, I moved over to Hubitat. As Neon says above, some things just work better on a larger screen.
I don’t particularly care that Hubitat lacks a pretty app interface. If I need to use the app (or a voice) to control something, it’s not really automation, is it? More than four years later, as my concerns around privacy have grown, my appreciation for Hubitat being locally controlled has similarly increased.
It’s a shame Hubitat doesn’t get more attention, but by being all steak, and very little sizzle, it tends to fly under the radar.
I too have moved away from everything should be an app, and where possible use PWA’s. If you want a real challenge though, try using Facebook Messenger via the web, on a phone. (desktop mode for a very frustrating and unnecessarily awkward experience for the win)
I’m an apple guy, let me just get that out of the way. I have a house full of smart home devices including Insteon in-wall switches (lights/fans), Nest (thermostat), TV/Projector/Soundbar (via Broadlink IR blaster), Orbit (sprinklers/drip), Chamberlain (garage) & a couple outdoor outlets. I’ve somewhat randomly built this up over the years and agree 100% that having multiple apps is just ridiculous, especially for the average consumer (I’m a software guy). I always thought this multiple app approach was similar to the old, aggravating problem of having to use multiple IR remotes to use your home entertainment center.
To solve this problem for me, I have a few HomeKit enabled devices but have integrated multiple, older HW vendors into the iOS/OSX Home app via Home Bridge. I use an Apple TV as my main ‘hub’. Other than the initial device setup to my network, I do ALL automation scheduling and controlling of the ‘smart devices’ (I really dislike that term) through the iOS/OSX Home app. This app automatically syncs device states between all my mobile devices (& desktop) so I can get to everything from wherever I am, in or out of the house. I also have a HomePod Mini which, when home, gives me voice based control of everything via Siri. I would say I now use Siri about 75% of the time when doing any manual controlling of devices or toggling of ‘scenes’ instead of using the Home app or any physical switches or buttons.
While I wouldn’t go as far to say this works 100%, I would put it at about 85-90%. While it is still cloud-based for now, I always have the old-school physical switches/buttons as a minimal operational fall back. That has always worked good. I hope Matter eventually removes Home Bridge and multiple hub requirements that I currently have. 🤞
kim frank says
re browser discussion. MS has a new app for android called phonelink and it allows many phone apps to run on windows. You might want to review this
I do a lot of work sitting at my desktop so I definitely prefer to have web interfaces. Fortunately, Home Assistant is my smart home hub and I have a good web interface for my smart home. But, this is more than a smart home issue. Some services beyond the smart home only have app interfaces or have features that only work in the apps.
I’m fine with apps, I just like having web interfaces too.