Apple Wants to Automate Your Home, From MP3 Player to Hot Tub

Last Updated Jun 4, 2010 11:44 AM EDT

Ask Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs about the Apple TV product, and he calls it a hobby. However, earlier this week, Apple received a patent for a graphically-oriented approach to home appliance and entertainment automation that puts the living room device into a new light.

A few days ago at the WSJ's All Things Digital conference, Jobs addressed a question about Apple TV and explained that because TV boxes are essentially subsidized by cable and satellite companies, people are unwilling to pay for devices, so there's not much of a market for them:

The television industry fundamentally has a subsidized business model that gives everybody a set-top box for free, or for $10 a month, and that pretty much squashes any opportunity for innovation, because nobody's willing to buy a set-top box.
However, Jobs is anything but a stupid executive. Why keep a business line running if it's not going anywhere? And his claim that Apple TV is an also-ran in the company simply doesn't sound credible in light of the Engadget story about a new iPhone OS-based Apple TV that might run as little as $100.

Clearly price is critical, when you consider Jobs's subsidy argument. However, what will make most people want to bother? My colleague Chris Dannen thinks that gaming will be an important part, and I agree. However, a U.S. patent that Apple received this week -- number 7,730,223, titled, "Wireless home and office appliance management and integration" -- offers a more expansive view.

The patent covers a graphically-oriented way to control home and office appliances and devices over a network. It's home automation, Apple-style:

The present invention provides systems and methods for managing and controlling networked devices. A system comprises a host application executing on, for example, a personal computer, and one or more networked devices executing a client application. A networked device includes a consumer appliance equipped with network capability, a digital device such as MP3 players and DVRs, an electronically-controlled device such as a light circuit or other type of circuit, and the like. The host application automatically establishes communication with the networked device. The networked device configures a user interface for user control of the networked device. The host application provides a graphical layout of the networked device.
The patent, which Apple first filed as a provisional patent in 2004, discusses an essential problem in home electronics: a cacophony of manufacturers, functions, and user interfaces. Think of how many different remotes many people have. Except, the patent extends far beyond entertainment electronics. It mentions music and television, yes, but also lighting, dishwashers, and even hot tubs. A "PDA" becomes the remote:
In an office system, daily tasks are automated such as starting the coffee machine in the morning and the dishwasher in the evening. A dishwasher is adapted according to the present invention. A switching device can be a power outlet strip with an electrical output for receiving the electrical plug of the coffee machine, the power outlet strip controlling power to the outlet. The coffee machine is plugged into the switching device, which in turn is plugged into the wall outlet. Now, the user can use a PDA device executing the host application to set up all of the office devices to turn on and off at specific times. To configure, the user opens the host application and the devices are discovered automatically. The dishwasher identifies itself directly to the host application. The switching device also identifies itself, and the user associates this switching device with a label to show that it is controlling the coffee machine. The user can also set up appliance groups to facilitate messaging multiple appliances at once. For example, the user can set up an appliance group of all lights, and could automate the host application to turn off all lights on Friday. Each appliance will continue to operate on schedule because it has its own clock and CPU. That is, even if the user arrives late on Monday, the lights will be on and coffee will be ready.
So you have the iPhone or iPad as the remote. Some version of Apple TV becomes the local nerve center. Everything runs iPhone OS. The Engadget story also mentions cloud storage instead of local -- which evokes both the big data center Apple is building in North Carolina and a great facility for on-demand programming as well as a form of app meant to do things in the home. Plus, Apple invested in a home automation company in 2008. And for the CPUs in all those devices -- maybe it's another reason Apple acquired capabilities to create its own chips. If it can get the media industry chasing the iPad, why not get appliance and electronics manufacturers to buy chips to make themselves Apple compliant? And with the speed of current wireless technology, kiss goodbye the need to run network cables, which opens the market to virtually any household.


Hot tub image: Flickr user Andrei!, CC 2.0.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.