Appcessories: the march toward a smartphone-controlled world

1Executive Summary

Smartphones may not have replaced PCs as consumers’ main personal-data repositories yet, but the portability, omnipresence, and context awareness of mobile devices have made them the centerpiece of on-the-go digital connections. Indeed, GigaOM Pro predicts the global smartphone market will grow at a rate of 17 percent CAGR through 2015, and it will represent 44 percent of the entire mobile-handset market by the same time.

Meanwhile the same Moore’s law trajectory that has turned smartphones into pocket computers has imbued a dizzying array of products, from thermostats to remotes. Fused to the smartphone with software, these products have become appcessories: devices that can either be controlled by or exchange content with a smartphone or tablet. The advancement of these products is creating new ways in which companies can differentiate products as well as encouraging the development of new application programming interfaces that mobile developers can tap into. However, they can also raise the level of complexity and cost in developing and purchasing products.

Categories and connections

Both traditional categories of products as well as new ones can be considered appcessories, even when they are much larger or more expensive than smartphones. This includes:

  • Traditional computing and communications peripherals such as headsets, speakers, and printers
  • Toys ranging from desk-friendly remote controlled minicars to hovering quadricopters
  • Consumer electronics products spanning alarm clocks, digital cameras, remote controls, and TVs
  • Watches
  • Body-monitoring products that measure exercise, steps, sleep, blood pressure, and other statistics
  • Robots (incubating a telepresence wave)
  • Musical instruments
  • Vehicles
  • Lighting and heating products, including bulbs, thermostats, and air conditioners
  • Monitoring devices, including baby-monitoring and security applications

Major vehicle aftermarket electronics providers forecast that smartphone-connected remote starters will soon account for at least 10 percent of category sales volume. And the ability to control systems such as heating and lighting from a tablet is a key component of AT&T’s home-automation push.

The first proto-appcessories (speaker docks) connected via Apple’s proprietary dock connector, a connection method that carried over to the iPhone and, in some cases, the iPad as well (in the case of, say, iHealth’s blood pressure monitor). Physical interfaces relying on cables and connectors, of course, provide high reliability. But in addition to being limited by distance, supporting Apple’s proprietary connector has limited control to iPhones and other iOS devices. While Google announced an ambitious Android-controlled accessory program at its 2011 developer conference, it has made little progress compared to that for iOS.

One reason for this is the shift to local and somewhat universal standards such as Bluetooth, particularly for control as opposed to heavy media transfer. This change has been aided by the adoption of Bluetooth 4.0, which includes support for low-power Bluetooth Smart technology. Using Bluetooth Smart, connected devices can be powered by a watch battery for up to a year, thus making smart watches and unattended remote sensors more practical. In short, Bluetooth and other wireless technologies create opportunities for appcessories that would be impractical for a wired connection to a mobile device.

Case studies

Fitbit vs. Striiv

Fitbit (see disclosure) has been a pioneer in what some consider a greenfield of connected-body monitors. But the heart of what it does — measures body movement — is rooted in the humble pedometer. The first version of two iterations of the clothespin-like gadget was a quasi-cloud-connected device that required a PC connection via a docked or proprietary wireless connection to the PC.

More recently, Fitbit has split its product line into a low-priced entry option and a step-up successor. The entry-level Fitbit Zip, at two-thirds of the original device’s price, still connects via a PC. The higher-end Fitbit One offers a direct connection to smartphones via Bluetooth 4.0, much like its competitor, Nike+ FuelBand. This provides a more current view of the day’s progress and all but eliminates the PC as a requirement.

On the other hand, another startup in the space, Striiv, had opted to forgo a smartphone connection altogether, requiring more investment in a larger (albeit resistive) touch display than that on the Fitbit and user interface design on the device. The move was made in part to expand the Striiv audience beyond smartphone users. However, with increasing iPhone penetration, Striiv has embraced the smartphone platform with its own app and launched a smaller, less obtrusive Bluetooth-connected pedometer called the Striiv Play. This device is closer in design philosophy to the Fitbit One.

ION Audio vs. Discovery Bay Games

The iPad has attracted the interest of developers seeking to recreate the arcade hits that many of their users grew up with. At least two appcessory companies — ION Audio and Discovery Bay Games — have created add-ons that work with popular retro gaming apps from Atari and other developers to add physical buttons and a joystick that (nominally) better recreates the arcade experience, or at least makes the games easier to play.

Whereas Discovery Bay Games has chosen to support the iPad’s 30-pin connector, ION Audio has gone the Bluetooth route. Discovery Bay Games came out of the gate with a lower-priced product that did not require its own batteries, but ION Audio was able to add support for arcade-game software running on Android devices as well as bridge Apple’s Lightning connector transition to the fourth-generation iPad and iPad mini.

IRig iKeys and KMI’s QuNexus

From early versions of Pro Tools to today’s GarageBand, Apple’s hardware has long played a role in music production. IK Multimedia has supported iOS devices through a wide range of both connected and stand-alone accessories ranging from simple iPad holders that clip to microphone stands to mixers that plug into the dock connector ports and interface with the company’s software. Its iRig Keys product, while not wireless, gets around the issue of proprietary connectors and limited platform support by supporting multiple kinds of cables and software on multiple platforms. KMI’s QuNexus takes a similar approach: The Kickstarter-funded project substitutes pressure-sensitive illuminated pads for traditional piano-style keys and can thus function as a sequencer in addition to a MIDI controller.

Software: the other shoe

Creating an appcessory or any device designed to interface remotely with a phone requires making careful decisions regarding which functions to enable via the device, which to enable on the phone, and which should be replicated on both. Creators of these products must decide on which platforms to support and how deeply to support them in terms of current features, legacy OS versions, and, especially in the case of Android, hardware variations. One appcessory maker, for example, that sought to send a control signal via the handset’s audio jack has been frustrated by the variation in sound chips used across such devices, even from the same manufacturer.

In part due to these kinds of restrictions, we will likely see more of an embrace of the mobile web over the next few years. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently commented that the decision to base Facebook’s mobile apps on HTML5 was perhaps one of the worst decisions his company has ever made, as it sacrificed performance and polish.

That said, Facebook continues to develop its mobile website and must continue to do so to meet the needs of those on alternative platforms or those who don’t have a given app installed. Indeed, particularly for devices for which cloud control makes sense and there isn’t a performance imperative, web-app development represents at minimum an adjunct to native app–based integration. Boxee, which recently announced the Boxee TV cloud DVR, will enable access to the devices’ recordings and scheduling via a web application for handsets and tablets; Aereo TV, which offers a similar service without client hardware, has done the same.

One may bemoan the lack of coordination and thus integration among these controls. An app to control the Friedrich Kühl air conditioner cannot also monitor the temperatures of house pets. There are some early signs of reaching across some of these app boundaries. The Viper SmartStart application, which can remotely start a car, can also perform some basic home-security functions controlled by software from Alarm.com, for example.

Overall, though, this is not unlike the various financial services and billing relationships that have traditionally had to be managed via various websites from our bank, cable company, utility, wireless carrier, and so on. It is difficult to see a time when even a back-end service like Yodlee would become a viable aggregator across disparate app-controlled devices. However, the demands of competition do not afford the luxury of waiting for such standards. Consumers will ultimately come to expect integration with their mobile devices where it makes sense, and it can create differentiation and delight in the most mature of product categories.

Disclosure: FitBit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this site, GigaOM. Om Malik, the founder of GigaOM, is also a venture partner at True.

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