By Tim Bradshaw in San Francisco
Apple is readying a new software platform that would turn the iPhone into a remote control for lights, security systems and other household appliances, as part of a move into the "internet of things".
Apple plans to take on rivals Google and Samsung and make a "big play" in the world of smart home technology at its Worldwide Developer Conference on June 2 in San Francisco, according to people familiar with the matter.
This will reinforce the view, held by some in Silicon Valley, that Jetsons-style home automation is the next frontier in technology as growth in smartphone sales begins to slow in developed markets.
Apple’s coming move follows Google’s $3.2bn acquisition in January of Nest Labs, makers of internet-connected thermostats and smoke alarms, and Samsung’s recent debut of its Smart Home range of refrigerators, washing machines and TVs that can be controlled from its smartphones and watches.
Apple’s integrated system will make it easier to set up and control new "smart home" devices. For example, a home’s lights might automatically come on when the owner enters the house, using their iPhone to wirelessly signal their arrival. Such a system was outlined in an Apple patent filing, published in November last year.
The connected-home system will give Apple customers more reasons to buy several devices in its iOS family, by using the iPhone or iPad in conjunction with its Apple TV box, an upgraded version of which is expected to be released later this year, to control other domestic devices.
Apple has been talking to a select group of other device makers whose smart home products will be certified to work with its forthcoming new system and then be sold in its retail stores.
The scheme will be similar to Apple’s existing "Made for iPhone" label, given to compatible headphones, speakers and other accessories, but with a new brand and logo. Apple may also provide additional checks and assurances that certified products are not vulnerable to hackers.
The Cupertino-based company was likely to emphasise the privacy protections built into its smart home system, one person familiar with Apple’s plans told the FT, given heightened sensitivity about technology companies’ access to personal information amid revelations about US intelligence agencies’ online surveillance programmes.
Apple considers privacy a key advantage over Google, the person said, since Google relies on targeted advertising as its main source of income. In a regulatory filing last week, Google said it was preparing for a "multi-device future" where "we and other companies could be serving ads and other content on refrigerators, car dashboards, thermostats, glasses, and watches".
An Apple spokesperson declined to comment. The company has been known to change its plans for WWDC at the very last minute.
As it hunts for new sources of growth, Apple has in the past year launched CarPlay, which lets drivers show iPhone apps on a screen in their vehicle’s dashboard, and iBeacon, an indoor positioning system used by retailers, event venues and marketers to send messages based on location.
CarPlay, iBeacon and the older AirPlay system, for beaming music to wireless speakers, all use Bluetooth technology to connect the iOS operating system to other nearby devices that are not made by Apple.
A similar set of technologies will soon be extended to other parts of the home such as security systems, lighting and appliances – perhaps with the addition of a new component, near-field communication. Analysts expect NFC to be built into the next iPhone, as part of Apple’s rumoured plans for a new payments service.
Apple’s retail stores will also play a key role in its plans for the internet of things. Its new retail chief, Angela Ahrendts, joined from fashion brand Burberry at the beginning of May with a broad mandate to overhaul its high-street and online presence.
Apple stores already sell several smart home products in the $50 to $250 price range, including Nest thermostats, Dropcam wireless cameras, Philips Hue lightbulbs and Belkin WeMo switches, each of which is controlled by a separate iPhone app.
As the smart home market is still in its very early days, Apple may face challenges in convincing consumers and technologists to use its platform. But Apple’s longstanding promise that its products "just work" when used together, thanks to its tight integration of hardware, software and cloud services, could give the iPhone maker an advantage over its rivals.