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iPhone Home-control Apps a Growing Market

Dec 15, 2008 11:00 AM, By Rebecca Day

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Sonos Apple iPhone/Touch home-control app

Sonos engineers received the Apple software development kit in Q1 of this year and were able to tap out a control app for the iPhone and iPod Touch by October.

The list of companies offering iPhone control for their home electronics systems may be modest now, but get ready for a tsunami of iPhone apps over the coming months as manufacturers look for ways to reduce costs and add cool to their products.

Sonos has had an unexpected flurry of interest in its multiroom system since music lovers on iPhone chat boards started talking up the product following the release of an iPhone/iPod Touch app in October.

“We’re seeing a pretty dramatic impact from this,” says Tom Cullen, co-founder of Sonos. “Home control up until now—whether it was Sonos, which is on a pretty cost-effective end of the spectrum compared with other handheld controllers—was viewed as relatively expensive and had fairly sizeable startup hurdles with setup and installation.”

Sonos engineers received the Apple software development kit in Q1 of this year and were able to tap out a control app for the iPhone and iPod Touch by October. Now Sonos is selling fewer $399 controllers, but they’ve broadened their potential customer base in the process. “It was worth doing because it changed who could have a controller,” Cullen says. “In the house, you’ve gone from one expensive shared device to potentially everyone having a personal controller. You walk in the house, reach in your pocket, and listen to music.”

Lutron, too, has an iPhone application that can be downloaded from the Apple site. The iPhone and Touch work with web keypads embedded inside the HomeWorks processor. Installers can create virtual keypads that replicate keypads in the home or create entirely new ones. Up to 40 keypads can be selected for control by the iPhone.

Beta tests show that HomeWorks owners are enjoying iPhone control in two basic ways, according to Phil Scheetz, Lutron’s residential systems marketing manager. One, they use it to select a scene such as Away that they would choose when leaving the home. In addition, consumers are using the iPhone as a portable home controller to select lighting and music and other options from their personal device—regardless of where they are in the home. They can control inside lights from the back patio, for example. “It doesn’t matter where you are,” he says. “It’s like a wearable keypad. You have the control wherever, whenever you want.”

SE2 Labs is in the process of converting the front-panel control pad on its ITC One home theater controller from a Windows CE-based device to an iPhone/iPod Touch interface, according to CEO Mike Pyle. Since Apple designs both the software and the devices, there’s a stronger synergy between devices than there is in the Windows world, he says. “As an integrator, you’re not sure if Windows is going to work on that computer with that application because there are so many variables,” Pyle says. “We’re making the change because for the price of the Touch, we can get much better performance than we can out of the Windows device. And it’s cheaper.”

It may be the iPod Touch—with no phone contract required—that changes the face of home control but for now, it’s the millions of iPhone loyalists who are bringing control options to a whole new demographic. Says Sonos: “We believe there is a positive trend pointing toward the iPhone as a way for ‘niche’ companies/products/services to introduce themselves to a mass audience—the iPhone lover.”

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