Lock-In

The ‘smart home’ could be Apple and Google’s chance to do something together again

May 27, 2014
May 27, 2014

Apple and Google—former allies that have spent the last several years engaged in corporate war—may now find an opportunity to work together again, at least for a while. The site for this possible détente is the nascent “smart home” market, which both companies are exploring with potentially complementary strategies.

The latest: Apple is preparing a new software platform for controlling smart home devices, the Financial Times reported yesterday, which it could reveal next week at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference. Meanwhile, Google—which acquired the smart thermostat-maker Nest, run by the former Apple executive Tony Fadell—is “plotting a move into the home-security market,” according to The Information, and has reportedly considered acquiring Dropcam, a cloud-dependent webcam maker.

At first glance, this seems like an opportunity to point out how Apple and Google have recently battled over everything from smartphone patents and maps to TV gadgets and voice search, and will probably find themselves competing head-to-head here. After all, try to imagine a better vendor lock-in opportunity for both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating system than the smart home. How often are you likely to replace your house, or even its “smart” components?

But in this case, each company has more to gain from collaboration than competition. It sounds like Apple’s early strategy will lean on partners: The FT reports that Apple has been talking with “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.” (Apple has similar arrangements for accessories such as headphones and chargers.) And it’s hard to imagine a better, more Apple-like smart home partner than Nest—which is already sold in Apple stores and on its website—whether it’s owned by Google or not.

As Jessica Lessin notes at The Information, Apple’s and Google’s roles seem reversed here: Apple is usually the one selling the actual device, and it has “long resisted embedding its software in other manufacturers’ hardware.” In the long term, that may end up being the strategy: Apple could easily create its own line of home automation gadgets someday that compete with its initial partners. (Recall Apple’s early iTunes integration attempts with Motorola, before launching the iPhone.) But for now, partnering with established, high-end vendors such as Nest actually plays to Google and Apple’s relative strengths: Google’s at integrating many different systems, and Apple’s at focusing on building fewer things and defining an ideal, consistent user experience.

If Apple unveils any early partners next week, keep an eye out for the Nest logo. It may not mark long-term cooperation between Apple and Google—they’ll still compete in many large, important markets. It’s also possible Nest isn’t interested in changing anything to meet Apple’s specifications, or that Apple finds Google too creepy to include in its shortlist of smart home partners. But it seems smarter for both sides to team up in these early days.

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