Apple Zags

Apple Zags

Cover of "Minority Report [Blu-ray]"

Cover of Minority Report [Blu-ray]

Yesterday, Apple surprised the world by not doing three things. It didn’t unveil the next iPhone, it didn’t unveil a smart TV, and it didn’t unveil the iWatch.

What it did do was perhaps more significant.

People have been talking about the next Apple innovation since Steve Jobs died. One of his final statements was that he had worked out how to make TV work better, which is why everyone has been expecting an actual Apple TV (as opposed to a box).

No TV has been forthcoming.

Pundits have been talking about an iWatch for a couple of years. The reasoning seems to be that Samsung has one, so Apple had better get one, to prove they were still innovating.

No iWatch.

Anyone who has been watching Apple since before the iPhone should already have worked out that if the world zigs, Apple zags. Apple’s next innovation was not going to be a better version of what Samsung was dreaming up. Rather, it was going to be the opposite.

Conventional wisdom is that Apple would miniaturise even further to get a device on your wrist. Nobody could quite think of what would be more useful on your wrist than on your phone, except the time and possibly the date, but they reckoned Apple would sort it out.

What Apple has unveiled is conceptually the opposite: home automation, driven by iOS 8.

Home automation isn’t entirely new to Apple: the company has worked with Philips on remote controlled lights, but that, it turns out, was just the beginning.

Some Apple-watchers may well have spotted that home automation was going to be the next big thing, not just because of the Philips work. Home automation has been around for years, but it’s never been very good. A bit like pre-iPhone smartphones, and pre-iPad tablets. You could control devices through signals sent via the electrical wiring long before wifi ever reared its head. The problem was, all you could really do was turn the power on and off, unless you had a bespoke, geeks-only appliance, which meant going off-brand.

When everyone was expecting Apple to go small, it’s gone large: your entire home becomes part of your iPhone’s ecosystem. A bit like Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver which, implausibly, acts as a universal remote control for everything from spaceships to mobile phones. Your iPhone will probably never quite that good, but it almost certainly will do things you’d never dreamed of.

That, of course, is the point. When the iPhone debuted, many people said there was no need for it. When the iPad debuted, very much the same people said the same thing. The reason both devices — and their imitators and spin-offs — have become absolutely essential is they opened up avenues to things we previously didn’t do at all. If the iPhone had merely done what other devices already did, it would have been no more than one of a range of choices.

The same is true for home automation. Right now, you may be wondering exactly how much better it will to be able to dim the lights without having to get out of your chair or use the remote control that came with them. You may be speculating on how useful it will be to be able to switch on the washing machine remotely if you can’t actually load it remotely. You may wonder how much use it will be to switch on the coffee machine from another room, if you still have to manually fill it with water or put a cup under it (depending on your machine), and, in any case, you still have to drink it.

If the majority of us had already seen how home automation could benefit us, it would already have become a major consumer category, as opposed to something you could get at Maplin.

So here are some thoughts. First, the main reason that home automation never took off was because it was essentially a Heath Robinson add-on to the things you already had. A truly integrated home automation system will offer deep control of devices, but, more importantly, it will also enable the devices to talk back to your iPhone. Knowing that the kettle has boiled, that the washing machine has finished, or that the microwave wants you turn over the defrosting meat, may well save you more time than being able to turn on the devices remotely.

That, however, is only the beginning.

At the moment, your heating probably works on a combination of thermostat and timer. If you’re out of the house all day on an odd Tuesday, your timer won’t work out that you aren’t there, and will carry on heating the house. On the other hand, when you come back from holiday, your house is cold because you turned the heating down. Imagine now that the thermostat is controlled from your iPhone, which works out when your fifteen minutes from home, warming up the house before you get there. When you are a hundred miles away, or in a different country, it switches it down.

What about all those devices you’ve got on standby, or just left on. In principle, you shouldn’t, but, in practice, lots of us do. Suppose that, when you leave the house, all of them are automatically shut down. Or, better, they shut down when you walk out of the room, only to spring back to life when you re-enter. This isn’t just a question of having the music follow you round the house: it will be a way of cutting your carbon emissions to a half, or a tenth, or even better.

Now imagine what happens when your appliances start working together, through your iPhone, learning from your usual patterns of behaviour. Suppose that you get up at different times of day, but you always like to have a cup of coffee a quarter of an hour after the radio switches on to wake you up. Suppose that, without ever having to tell it, your device works out that that is what you do, and so switches the coffee machine into warm-up mode ten minutes after you get up.

Far-fetched?

On current home automation systems, almost certainly more trouble than they are worth. Like manually configuring all your icons on Windows 3.11, by the time you’ve programmed all of your devices, your habits change and all the work you put in is lost.

The genius of Apple is to take things which are too cumbersome to use, and make them easy.

This then brings us back full circle, because a truly connected home automation system makes a currently useless device useful: the smart watch. The reason that Apple didn’t announce an iWatch this time is because its time is not yet. A phone is a much better device for making calls than a watch is. Some people may want their heart rate monitored on their wrists, but most of us really aren’t that interested.

But want if your smart watch isn’t there to give you information, but to be a gesture based remote control for absolutely everything. This takes us into a Harry Potter world where you just have to wave at the microwave and it comes on. Gesturing at the TV and making the a 2 sign for BBC2 is vastly easier than hunting round for the remote.

The world becomes something like a cross between Minority Report and Wii Olympics. Or not — because, if Apple do get this right, the technology will be feel as natural in five years time as swiping your phone does now.

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