Smartphones are permeating every aspect of users' lives

  • Article by: BRIAN X. CHEN
  • New York Times
  • January 11, 2013 - 8:38 PM

LAS VEGAS - The smartphone is no longer just a portable computer in your pocket. It has become the remote control for your life.

Want to flip off the living room lights, unlock your front door or get a reading of your blood pressure? All of this can be done through mobile apps that work with accessories embedded with sensors or an Internet connection.

For several years, technology companies have promised the dream of the connected home, the connected body and the connected car. Those connections have proved illusory. But in the past year, app-powered accessories have provided the mechanism to actually make the connections. That is partly because smartphones have become the device people never put down. But it is also because wireless sensors have become smaller, cheaper and ubiquitous.

Big companies with strong brands have been heavily promoting the new uses for these gadgets. General Motors advertises its Chevy Malibu Eco with a man showing his parents how he starts the car with a smartphone. A major selling point of the popular Nest thermostat is its ability to turn up the furnace from miles away with a cellphone.

"Now that, increasingly, consumers have a device with them to monitor virtually anything they do with the Internet, why not offer that capability to monitor and remote control?" said Ross Rubin, an analyst at Reticle Research.

The idea of turning off the lights with a smartphone may seem gimmicky, but consumers are warming to applications, said Bill Scheffler, director of business development for the Z-Wave Alliance, a consortium of companies that make connected appliances. The situation resembles the time when power windows started catching on for automobiles, or when television makers started offering remote controls, Scheffler said.

"It used to be that people would say, why does anybody want a remote control for a TV if you can get up and change the channel?" he said. "It's just progress." Companies like AT&T, Black and Decker and Honeywell have started selling app-linked products, he said.

At the International Consumer Electronics Show, which has attracted more than 150,000 people to Las Vegas this week, dozens of companies are showing off connected accessories they can hook up to their home appliances to make them work with smartphones, and many are also displaying wearable devices that can help people monitor their health on their phones. Some of these products are being provided by large companies. AT&T, the wireless carrier, said it will begin selling a wireless security system called Digital Life in March that will allow people to use tablets or phones to monitor cameras, alarms and even coffeepots.

If a burglar trips a motion sensor in the house, for example, a user can receive a text message, then call the police. Customers can choose to expand AT&T's wireless service to appliances like lights, door locks, thermostats and security cameras, which can be controlled and monitored through the AT&T mobile app.

CEO Ralph de la Vega of AT&T Mobility said in an interview that home security is a big opportunity to increase revenue. Only 20 percent of homes have security systems, he said, leaving millions of homeowners as potential buyers.

"I think it dramatically changes how people feel about their home and how secure they feel about being outside the home," De la Vega said. "I think it's an easy sell." The company has not announced prices for the service.

Products by several other companies take advantage of a smartphone's sensors and connection to the Internet to monitor consumers' health. IHealth sells monitors for people to track their blood pressure with an app. At the electronics show, it introduced a wireless glucose meter, called the Smart Glucometer, that lets people with diabetes determine their blood sugar. A user puts a blood sample on a test strip, pops it into an accessory attached to a smartphone, and an app gives a reading of the blood sugar level.

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