Next week is Apple's (AAPL) annual developers' conference, a time when the company historically has announced major products. On the rumor list for this year: A smart home platform, as originally reported by the Financial Times.
Software would allow iOS devices like iPhones and iPads to control home security, lights, connected appliances, and entertainment systems. For example, lights might turn on when the home owner entered the front door, according to a patent filing.
CEO Tim Cook has hinted about new product areas for some time now as investors have grown restless over a lack of new blockbuster categories. A new version of Apple TV, which would allow à la carte access to television programming, and a smartwatch have been on the rumor mill. Smart home systems -- also known as home automation -- have not been as large a topic of speculation.
However, Apple's patent filings going back to at least 2004 have shown a strong interest in controlling homes and offices from a handheld device. That could include coffee makers, dishwashers, music players like an iPod, and digital video recorders.
In 2008, Apple invested in a home automation software company. Patent applications in 2010 broadened the list of potentially connected devices to include lighting, televisions, exercise equipment, cameras, and even hot tubs. A communications system would allow the software to work with third party devices, critical because Apple does not produce most of these product types.
Another patent application, first filed in 2007 and made public in 2011, suggested that the company wanted to run the lives of its customers, with the eventual availability of "fitness, nutrition, and/or medical modules," according to the filing.
Some see this as an answer to Google's interest in home automation -- shown by its $3.2 billion acquisition of Nest Labs, which makes smart thermostats, smoke detectors, and carbon dioxide detectors -- and Samsung's connected appliances and Android smartphone software.
But Apple's long interest in the subject, as demonstrated by patent activity, shows that this is no recent reaction to competitors. The company's goal for many years has been to insinuate itself into consumers' lives. Although home automation systems for technology do-it-yourselfers have existed for decades, only recently, with the growing power of wireless computing and communications, has the concept has become accessible to a broader range of consumers. It would be a natural extension of the iPhone and iPad infrastructure, as was the iPhone interface for cars demonstrated by Apple and a number of car manufacturers earlier this year.
Apple's interest, however, does not necessarily mean success. It is unclear how many people would show practical interest in running their homes electronically. In addition, competition includes not just Google and Samsung, but such companies as Verizon and AT&T.