SciTech

Paul Gilster: The Smartphone is evolving into the future network hub

Switching from the iPhone to an Android device can be more or less complicated depending on how much of your data you keep in the cloud. But my recent experience in making the move was simple because I do most of my writing in Google Docs and use Gmail for email and contacts. I mirrored all this on the iPhone, but the switch to Android simply meant signing into my Google account and verifying that my information was present and accounted for.

Most people don’t need to switch platforms, but I wanted to get more experience living with Android because I write about both it and the iPhone. The smartphone is becoming the hub of our networked lives. The network of sensors we’re building called the Internet of Things is forecast to grow to 26 billion installed units by 2020. We’re looking at a future that connects everything from the cars we drive to the entertainment we consume on televisions and audio players. A $400 billion market, the smartphone is evolving into the future network’s hub.

Broad strategy

Take a look at what Google is doing to get a glimpse of what’s coming. Why would a company as broadly invested in the future of search and online advertising buy a home thermostat maker like Nest, which Google acquired in 2014? Surely it’s because Nest is a successful producer of “smart” thermostats, the kind of Internet of Things product Google can see as a lever into the home. Nest can control not only your thermostat but your smoke alarm, and it can monitor the quality of your air, all manageable remotely through Android apps.

As the “smart home” emerges, we’ll see other Google investments begin to come into their own. For the company also bought Dropcam, a home security firm. You may already have a home security system equipped with cameras, all of which can be monitored by your phone. Why not tie both thermostat and home security into the household network? Throw in recently acquired Revolv, a firm that specializes in getting networked devices working with each other, and you can see a broad strategy for dominance in the Internet of Things market.

Now ponder the other players in this game. Even as Google tweaks its strategy for the smart home, Apple works on HomeKit, a platform intended to tie home devices to the iPhone. To grow, these giant firms need new markets. If smart homes will be big, another logical place is healthcare. Here Apple weighs in with its HealthKit, and you can readily find Google entries as it explores this market, as I learned when I encountered Google Fit. Wearables? Apple has its new Watch, and Google is developing Android Wear, which in its latest iteration ties in WiFi so that a wrist-worn device doesn’t necessarily have to have a smartphone nearby.

Miles in front

Multiply this out and you can see where we’re heading. The $1.6 trillion auto industry is already the subject of intense speculation for Apple, which evidently intends to move well beyond its current CarPlay entry. Google has been working with driverless cars for years, while Tesla, the electric car company created by Elon Musk, just announced that its latest top of the line model would be updatable by software to give it automatic steering capabilities.

You can see why Amazon felt it had to try to enter the smartphone market (with its Fire Phone), and why Microsoft has hopes for phones running Windows. But when it comes to smartphones, the devices we’ll increasingly use to control the things we own, Apple and Google are miles in front. That means the phone choices you’re making today may gradually become the home, health and automotive choices you make in the future as power flows outward from the phone. Think long and hard about whose ecosystem you want to live in.

Or do you resist being shoe-horned into anybody’s ecosystem? A consumer backlash based on privacy and choice may still roil this market.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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