The Internet of the Mundane: Smart locks, connected lightbulbs, and learning thermostats
Your locks are probably the most boring piece of technology in your home. They aren't connected to the Internet; they don't tweet; and you can't play "Angry Birds" on 'em, unless you count the squawking of your horrible neighbor-ladies as they drunkenly insert the wrong key in the middle of the night (which I do). They're often an afterthought that only get noticed when they stop working or force you to rummage for your keys while you're rushing to get inside, a mundanity that most of us mutter about but few are trying to fix.
There have been three lock-related announcements in as many weeks: Lockitron announced that its "smart lock" will be shipping to pre-orderers on July 15; August launched a similar product on-stage at the D11 conference; and Goji today announced an Indiegogo campaign to crowdfund its own take on the category. Locks, like everything else, are finally joining the connected revolution, complete with their own scare quotes-surrounded "smart" designation.
Each of these products offers their own take on the category -- Lockitron appeals to tinkers by offering APIs. August is probably the best-designed of the bunch, and has the benefit of being co-founded by noted designer Yves Behar and the head of the Internet of Things Consortium, Jason Johnson. Goji has a camera and is building an extensive support network. But functionally, they are similar. They all work with an existing lock and promise easy installation, each works with the smartphone you probably already have in your pocket, and every single one of them utilizes common batteries and Bluetooth connections, so they can function even if your power cuts out. Like the traditional locks they're looking to supplement, smart locks will be barely-differentiated commodities that perform the same functions in similar ways.
Actually, "smart locks" might even be a bit of a misnomer. The category (which extends beyond these three companies, but will be used to refer to Lockitron, August, and Goji in this post) is less focused on improving your locks, and more concerned with redefining the concept of a "key," the main source of interaction between you and your locks. Each of these products allows users to generate digital keys that will allow smartphone owners to unlock a door without doing, well, anything -- all they have to do is have their smartphones on and come within range of the device.
Though these devices clearly fall under the burgeoning Internet of Things umbrella (and August was, in fact, co-founded by the head of the Internet of Things consortium), it might be better to consider them a part of what I'm calling the Internet of Mundanities. These are connected devices that take commoditized products which are often ignored or rarely thought of -- like, say, lightbulbs or thermostats -- but are much more compelling once they've been connected to other devices. It's not about appliances, which can differentiate themselves in other ways (refrigerators with ice-makers, dishwashers with buzzers, etc.) without being connected to the Internet. It's about the everyday objects we don't pay much attention to in the first place.
Connecting devices that require purposeful interaction, such as a refrigerator, is difficult, because we're constantly reminded of the change from their less-Internet-reliant counterparts. You'd probably notice that a dishwasher or clothes dryer is connected -- or "smart" -- each time you used it. But a lightbulb, thermostat, or lock? Most of the time we don't think about how we're using them anyway, so connecting 'em to the Internet is less about changing the way you interact with each device and more about helping them fade even further into the background.
In other words, the idea of a "smarter" future might work best when applied to the dumbest of devices.