Imagine that your new iPhone 5S or Android smartphone could control all aspects of your life. Change channels on your TV, start your car, change the temperature in your house, pay for your coffee, the watch on your wrist … everything. Think of a smartphone as universal remote for your entire life.
It’s a reality that is not so far away.
Three aspects of iOS and Android, the operating systems that run the majority of smartphones, are leading us to a future where those phones will have the ability to control everything around us: the explosion of the app ecosystem, the evolution of Bluetooth and the adoption of a standard called Wi-Fi Direct.
Couple these aspects with the continued growth and maturation of what is called the “Internet of Things,” and you have laid the groundwork for a smartphone that can directly control, track or measure everything with which you come in contact.
Take the just-announced iPhone 5S, for example. It will support both Bluetooth Smart and Wi-Fi Direct, and has capabilities built in to perform new functions such as AirDrop local sharing. Behind it stands Apple's thriving ecosystem, which will continue to churn out new apps that take advantage of those functions. All that makes the iPhone 5S not just Apple’s latest and greatest device, but one of the first devices available that has the potential to be a true universal remote.
Apps & Cloud Provide Interface & Opportunity
You’ve probably seen commercials where a person uses a smartphone to start their car or set a home alarm. These are examples of how apps can control things in your life. Yet these examples are not direct one-to-one connections where the smartphone connects directly to the gadget (alarm system or vehicle’s computer) in question. Rather these types of apps use cloud computing to provide functionality.
To control objects that aren't in their general vicinity, apps must go through an intermediary. This intermediary can be a server in the cloud or a home's Wi-Fi router. A smartphone user can then use an app to tell the object (the car or home security system) what they want it to do. The request is routed through the router or the cloud. The target object retrieves that information from the cloud and makes the appropriate action.
It is hard to overstate how much the maturation of cloud computing has enabled mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. By connecting to the cloud, smartphones and tablets don't have to perform processor-intensive calculations directly, and instead can leave the heavy lifting to a much more powerful server somewhere else.
The same goes for the other side of the equation. Vehicles, home thermostats and security systems don't have to perform complex calculations directly; all they have to do is act on directives passed down from the cloud.
The app is the vehicle that creates the opportunity to build this type of functionality. Think of it as a wormhole through which you can reach your hand and perform an action somewhere else. The more people with smartphones in their hands, the more wormholes—apps—will make smartphones the remotes that control our lives.
Over the past few years, the cloud has been the center of how smart devices and the Internet of Things interact. Yet with advances in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi Direct, the cloud won't have to carry the main burden.
The Direct Connection: Bluetooth Smart & Wi-Fi Direct
Smartphones are getting smarter, and two different wireless standards are helping spur that evolution.
Bluetooth Low Energy (also known as Bluetooth Smart) is part of the Bluetooth Core Specification 4.0. It allows for devices to connect over a distance of about 160 feet and transfer data and wireless connections to each other. It does this (as you may have guessed by the name) in a power efficient manner so as to save the battery of both devices. Bluetooth Smart is a one-to-one connection between devices that does not require an intermediary yet still allows rich data (music, notifications, cellular connectivity like 3G/4G and others) to be shared.
The best recent example of Bluetooth Smart in action is the way the new Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch connects with the Galaxy Note 3 smartphone. Apple also uses a Bluetooth Smart function in iOS 7 with a new feature called iBeacon. This feature creates a bubble area around an app "a beacon" that is similar to a geo-fence. When you and your bubble come into contact with another bubble (say, a grocery or a retail store) an action will occur. For instance, if I am at my local coffee shop and it has an iBeacon, it will connect to iPhone and allow me to do something like make a payment or send me a coupon. iBeacon could be set up in an apartment to connect other gadgets to the iPhone via Bluetooth Smart the minute you walk in the door.
Wi-Fi Direct is similar to Bluetooth Low Energy, but in many ways is more robust. Wi-Fi Direct is a way to create a connection between two devices without going through Wi-Fi router in a fairly simple manner. The best example of Wi-Fi Direct is how easy it has become to connect your home printer with your computer. Instead of the lengthy and complicated process that used to take place when connecting two devices, now it is simple as hitting a single button on the computer and one on the printer and saying “connect.”
Wi-Fi Direct can be used for streaming music or video from one device to another, sharing documents, media or pictures or letting one device control another (such a your PC to your printer).
Apple will use Wi-Fi Direct in iOS 7 for a feature called AirDrop that will allow you to share pictures and documents from one iPhone to another. The feature has been available in Mac computers since Apple released the Mac OS X “Lion” update.
What do Bluetooth and Wi-Fi Direct have in common? They allow interaction between devices on a one-to-one basis. Imagine walking into your house and everything inside automatically connecting to your smartphone. From an app, you could turn on the lights in the kitchen, turn on the TV (and tell it what to watch), pre-heat the oven for dinner and download your work files from your home computer.
That would be pretty cool, right? It is technically possible right now, though there are some obstacles that would have to be overcome for your smartphone to become the universal remote for your life.
Adoption & Ecosystems: Getting Everybody On The Same Page
Getting all of these devices to play nice with each other may be the biggest obstacle. Different companies have different agendas, different platforms and the same basic need: your money. Hence, those companies will create solutions that will force you to stay within their ecosystem and product lines.
AirDrop can only work with other Apple products. Google’s Chromecast TV dongle (that lets you use a tablet or smartphone as a remote for your TV to watch YouTube or Netflix) uses standard Wi-Fi and doesn’t play nice with other wireless streaming standards like Miracast or Wi-Fi Direct. Samsung’s “S Beam” and other sharing capabilities are intended to be used only with other Samsung devices like TVs, laptops or tablets.
Then there is the standard dilemma of consumer adoption. Mobile technology often moves faster than consumers do, making it hard to keep pace. Most consumers will get a new smartphone about once every two years. Multiply that by three or more for other consumer items, like a new car, home security system or television, and you can see the problem. To set up your new iPhone 5S as a universal remote, you are going to need to be on the bleeding edge of just about every kind of new technology.
That doesn’t mean that your new iPhone or top of the line Android smartphone won’t be able to perform many of these functions on an individual basis. You can use your iPhone 5S to stream media to an Apple TV and share files with friends. Or to control a smart thermostat like Nest.
Solutions may be scattered today, but the journey to make your smartphone the remote that controls everything around you is well on its way.