Gadgets
What’s Wrong with Apps for Home Control?
Are remotes just for the timid?
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September 15, 2011 by Grant Clauser

Last week at CEDIA it was a rare thing to walk into a manufacturer’s booth and not be confronted by an app for this or that. This industry has apps to turn up the music, lower the shades, manage the home theater, spy on the neighbor, flush the toilet and turn off grandma’s pacemaker.

And I like that, a lot. The volcanic rise in Appism means that I have several tap-friendly things in my house that can work with nearly any amazing device that shows up here for review.

That also means that half of that stuff lacks any dedicated control interface—a remote or touchscreen or keypad. The assumption too many manufactures are making is that they don’t need to make those things anymore because everyone has an iThing or Android thing. Well, we all do, but that won’t always do (see what I did there—I’m clever).

Last week the control company Control4 launched a new touchpad which will run around $1,000. That’s not really a surprising price for something like that, especially if it’s solidly built, reliable and easy to use. That’s why people buy control systems—for the luxury of being able to do cool things easily and reliably.

But when the news came out, there was a giant cicada buzz about how crazy the company must be to try and sell that for $1K when anyone can buy an iPad for half the price and just download the app. A dealer I met on the plane said as much to me.

I have two music systems now that rely on apps for everything from turning the volume up and down to switching from the office to the living room. They’re great. I have an iPhone in my pocket all the time, so I’m never without the ability to play my Black Sabbath channel. The tablet (an Android) that usually stays in the kitchen has the same apps, so everyone who passes the kitchen table can turn down Sweet Leaf if they want to.

But this morning I experienced a massive app failure. When I launched the Sonos app I received the messages below.


What? How did my devices suddenly become “incompatible?” They were getting along just fine last night. Does one drink Coke while the other favors RC Cola?  What the message really meant was that the company had updated the app (to make it better I suppose) and I now needed to download the update.

Instead, I went to my iPhone, launched the same app (which still worked for some reason) and finally had Wasted Years to go with my coffee break.

A couple of minutes later, I went into the Android marketplace, found the app, tapped the Update button, and all was back to normal (note: the app seems to be unchanged).

So here’s a couple of questions? What if that happened when I wasn’t there and someone else in the family needed to control something? What if it was a more important system than just music (like the thermostat or security system or *gasp* the TV)? What if another device hadn’t been available to control the system?

Also, I’m a little paranoid. If teenage hackers can get into the Pentagon, then they can probably get into my iPhone and change all my Pandora channels to Lady Gaga.

Apps are great. Apps are wonderful, but they have their limits. Maybe I’ll use my iPhone 9 times out of 10 to turn my lights off, but I want a real remote too.

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Grant Clauser - Technology and Web Editor, Electronic House
Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. His latest book is Necessary Myths. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.

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