The Real Reason Apple Wants You to Talk to Your House

Apple's foray into "the Internet of Things" is less about the things, and more about the Internet.
Ari N/Shutterstock

“In a few decades’ time,” the computer scientist Karl Steinbuch wrote, “computers will be interwoven into almost every industrial product.”

That was in 1966. Since then, futurists and realists alike have talked about a potential world whose physical objects, from cars to toasters, are digitally interconnected. It’s a phenomenon we’ve come to shorthand, for better or for worse, as the “Internet of Things.”

This afternoon, at its World Wide Developers Conference in San Francisco, Apple announced its foray into the phenomenon via HomeKit, an integrated system of smart objects. HomeKit is, for now, focused on the home. It promises: locks that unbolt with an app, lights you turn on with your phone, washing machines that talk to you, toasters that text you… that kind of thing.

None of this is new (or, to use Apple's preferred adjective, revolutionary); HomeKit, instead, is Apple in its most traditionally—and comfortably—Jobsian mode. It is Apple taking something that other companies have already done, iterating on it, and betting that it can turn out a better product: something more elegant, more user-friendly, more Bauhausian and pure. HomeKit is Apple’s gamble that it can succeed in connecting the home where other companies—among them Whirlpool, Samsung, Cisco, and Google—have stalled. Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, summed it up with a delightfully revealing mix of hostility and hubris: “We thought we could bring some rationality to this space.” 

Sick burn, etc. But it’s an insult that hints at the ambition of Apple’s plans when it comes to your house—and, maybe, to the world at large. Because what is “rationality,” exactly, in the context of a digitally connected house? What is rationality when it comes to a world of stuff made newly chatty?

More on Apple in a minute. But first it's worth looking at the supremely-unfortunately-named category that Tim Cook and his team have invested in with HomeKit: “the Internet of Things.” It’s an unfortunate term, on the one hand, in the same way that “cyberspace” and “weblog” and “Information Superhighway” are unfortunate terms: It conveys that particular gee-whiz-ery that we tend to associate with technologies when they're new and we're naive. But it is also, on the other hand, simply misleading: the Internet of Things may be about things, but it isn’t necessarily about the Internet. 

What it is about, however, is standardization. "The Internet of Things," the term, was coined in 1999, by Kevin Ashton, then the head of MIT’s Auto-ID Center. Ashton and his team focused on the design of RFID infrastructures; more broadly, though, they were trying to figure out ways to apply the general logic of the World Wide Web—a standard protocol for connection and communication among computers—to the world of objects at large. The Center’s first white paper, published in 2000, declared as much: “The Center is creating,” it said, “the infrastructure… for a networked physical world.” (It added: “A well known parallel to our networked physical world is the Internet.”)

Ashton and his team, in other words, were trying to develop a single platform through which objects could be connected. The point wasn't so much the system itself as it was the standardization of a system: The most important word in the term “the Internet of Things" may well be the “the.” The MIT group wanted to give the world's stuff a universal language for talking to us; they bet on RFID as a means of achieving that goal. As Ashton told Forbes in 2002, “We need an Internet for things, a standardized way for computers to understand the real world.” 

Which brings us back to Apple—and to the fact that while the Internet of Things isn't necessarily about IP in the narrow sense, it may be about IP in the broad. You could read HomeKit not simply as Apple's foray into the brave new world of object-ified communication, but also as the company's attempt at something much larger, something suggested by the sweeping ambitions of the "Internet of Things" as a commercial category. You could think of HomeKit as Apple's attempt to standardize the world of objects—to standardize our communications with those objects—under its own auspices and protocols. You could see it as Apple's attempt to turn the physical world into a kind of App Store: yet another platform. Another area whose gates Apple keeps. 

The company, in its presentation this afternoon, emphasized the collaborative aspects of HomeKit; Apple will work with third-party hardware providers, it says, to build out the system. But the hardware isn't the primary point here. Apple is famous, and infamous, for the control it exerts over its own products at every stage of their development; the home, the ultimate walled garden, is a place where that control might have extra consumer appeal. And while it's nice to control toasters and thermostats and refrigerators, the most valuable thing to control, in the long run, will be the protocols that govern the points of connection between our objects and ourselves—the ways we talk with our stuff, and vice versa. 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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