Interview: AT&T’s Lurie on building the iOS of the connected home

AT&T(s t) isn’t just slapping some connected thermostats and remote-access locks together and calling it a digital home, according to Glenn Lurie, President of AT&T’s emerging devices division. AT&T has much grander plans for its new Digital Life service, which Lurie hopes will scale to support hundreds of different devices and applications ranging from connected kitchen appliances to monitoring your pets.

What’s most impressive about Digital Life’s plans aren’t the individual apps, but the glue that binds them all together. If AT&T is truly going to build a service that will network hundreds of sensors, appliances and objects, there needs to be some kind of central intelligence to manage and filter that flow of information. There needs to be user interfaces that allow us to easily access and act upon that information. Otherwise, our personal Internet of things would quickly become filled with endless chatter, which, far from being useful, would actually be annoying.

Managing, filtering and redirecting that information, as well as building the interfaces that allow us to grok our home networks, are going to be monumental tasks, and I’m skeptical that a single company can put all of those disparate pieces together. But Lurie claimed that AT&T has the expertise and the resources to accomplish it. Luire isn’t just talking about building a simple iPad(s aapl) app or a management portal. He hinted at future in which we might be able to interact with our homes the same way comic book superheroes interact with their lairs: by voice command.

In an interview at Connected World earlier this month, I asked Lurie about the Watson voice recognition and natural language understanding technology developed in AT&T Labs (not to be confused with IBM’s Watson). Lurie’s division has already begun trials with Porsche and RIM’s(s rim) QNX to use Watson as the intelligent interface for the connected car. Lurie wouldn’t commit directly to whether AT&T had plans to craft talking houses, but he did say that a connected home platform would be ideal use case for new technology coming out of the labs.

“I can’t make any forward-looking statements,” Lurie said. “But you can make some assumptions. When you think about the very high-quality voice recognition technology we’ve developed in AT&T Labs, you know we’re going to try to use it wherever possible. You’re going to see a lot more of it in the future.”

Building a platform, not just a service

While the applications and the interface will be the consumer-facing elements of Digital Life, the industry should think of it as an operating system like iOS for the home, Lurie said. If AT&T can pull all the pieces together, Digital Life’s developers won’t just be coding apps. They will be building devices and objects, which will be sold in AT&T’s online and physical stores and eventually on the shelves of hardware and electronics stores, Lurie said.

Right now, Digital Life is working directly with select camera, thermostat, door lock, power control and sensor companies (AT&T is still a bit closemouthed about who its partners are), but Lurie pledged to eventually release a software developer kit to third party devs, opening up the platform. Developers will then not only be able to link their appliances to AT&T’s digital home controller, but also embed their controls as apps into the Digital Life’s tablet, smartphone and Web interfaces.

What’s more those devs won’t just be building apps that sit in a vacuum. They will be able to interlink them, feeding information to each another and allowing the apps and their attendant devices to act autonomously on that information, either individually or in unison. For instance, a solar sensor could communicate with an app controlling a home’s window blinds, lowering them gradually through the day to block out direct sunlight while raising the blinds at the other end of the home to let in indirect light.

A connected refrigerator (yes, Lurie brought up that old chestnut) wouldn’t need to send you a text message every time the milk expired or the ground meat starts sending off spores. It could simply add those items to a pantry or grocery list app embedded within the Digital Life interface (and hopefully alert you not to consume them when you open the fridge door).

The key, Lurie claimed, is to make that linkage automatic and seamless. “When I plug that refrigerator in it has to come online,” he said. “It just has to work.”

Will AT&T become your home’s overlord?

Ceding that much control to a digital home platform sounds a bit scary, and Lurie was quick to point out that this level of interconnectivity won’t be for everyone. Digital Life will suggest profiles that cluster together groups of devices, but ultimately the power will be in the homeowners to decouple them.

If you don’t want your dishwasher talking to your coffee maker, that’s fine, Lurie said. If you want your home security system to text you every time the front door opens, rather than only alert you when it opens at a time it shouldn’t be open — that’s fine as well. Ultimately the power will be in the customers’ hands to customize these systems anyway they please, he said.

There’s also the issue of whether consumers or developers want to put this much power into the hands of their phone company. As the central control point, AT&T could become like Apple in more ways the one, determining which developers and which vendors make it into the Digital Life “app” store. Forget figurative walled gardens; AT&T could build virtual walls around an actual garden.

Lurie said AT&T is taking steps to keep the platform open, promising that Digital Life will be completely independent of its wireless and wireline consumer divisions. You will be able to use a Verizon(s vz)(s vod) iPad to access Digital Life, and you can connect your home to the Digital Life grid with a Comcast(s cmsca) cable modem, he said.

But when it comes to acting as gatekeeper for applications and devices, AT&T probably won’t be making any apologies. Your home isn’t a smartphone. Apps linking into Digital Life will be able to access your door locks, your furnace and the cameras monitoring your children’s bedrooms. AT&T will keep its full API very close to its breast.

If we’re really going to achieve the Internet of things, we’re going to have to put a deep degree of trust in the entity that manages these interconnections. The question is: will that company be AT&T?

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user alexmillos