Let's say, hypothetically, that you own an iPhone and want to switch to Android or Windows Phone. Doing so wouldn't cost you much, if anything. Most of your favorite apps are probably free to download, your music catalog is easy enough to move around, and you can sync your contacts and calendar to Google or Outlook to break them free of Apple's iCloud. The biggest loss would be the time it takes to complete the switch.
Now, imagine trying to leave Apple's ecosystem when everything in your home -- the lights, the locks, the thermostat, the garage door and even the coffee maker -- are iPhone-controlled. Suddenly, the hundreds or thousands of dollars you've spent automating your house would be for nothing. You'll have a wonderfully convenient set-up, but you'll be stuck with it.
This scenario may not be hypothetical for much longer. Citing unnamed "people familiar with the matter," Financial Times reports that Apple will announce a home automation platform at its Worldwide Developers Conference next week.
The platform will reportedly allow users to control many aspects of their homes through the iPhone and other iOS devices, in some cases automatically. For instance, the platform could reportedly detect when you've arrived at your house and connected to the home network, and turn on the downstairs lights.
While many companies have tried to solve home automation before, the market is currently a mess of competing standards, and disparate apps and devices that don't easily talk to each other. And right now, there isn't a single major computing platform that integrates home automation at the system level; if you have a Nest thermostat, you can't just ask Siri to turn up the heat (at least not without some trickery).
If Financial Times' report is correct, Apple would still let other companies build all the home automation pieces, such as the lights and the security systems, but iOS would be the glue holding everything together.
It's not hard to see the appeal of such a system. Apple is known for making things easy to set up and use, so it could remove the hassles that have kept home automation out of the mainstream. People who own lots of iOS devices already could buy into this system knowing that everything is likely to work well. At the same time, home automation product makers could have a single, widely popular platform to target, with a common set of software tools to build around. Apple could then use its marketing prowess to get the word out about these products, and sell the best pieces through the Apple Store.
But as exciting as this sounds, it's also a bit scary, because the more you invest in an iOS-only home automation system, the harder it may become to leave for another platform.
The idea of platform lock-in isn't new, nor is it unique to Apple. Amazon, Google and Microsoft also dream of having customers who are unwilling or unable to move to competing platforms. But with home automation, the stakes are higher than ever because the hardware is so expensive. A smart thermostat costs $100. A single smart light bulb can cost around $30. A smart door lock can cost $200. You could easily spend over a thousand dollars turning your home into something out of the Jetsons, and the convenience may be totally worth the monetary cost.
But what happens if you decide the iPhone isn't right for you anymore? Maybe you like the way Android handles notifications, or the way Windows Phone integrates with Xbox and Office. Perhaps you want a screen that's bigger than anything Apple offers, or a phone with killer front-facing speakers. Only now, the decision to switch isn't so simple. You'd better hope your home automation gear supports some other platforms, or else your expensive smart home investment could start to look pretty dumb.