Why smart products that require a smartphone app aren't always a smart buy

Smart Home
Smart Home (Image credit: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)

I will go out on a limb and say that everyone reading this has a smartphone within reach at this very moment. In fact, most people reading this are doing so on their smartphones. Our phones have become an extension of our arms and we depend on them for a lot of things.

Unfortunately, I'm seeing other products that also depend on your phone. By this, I don't mean something like a Philips Hue lamp that you set up with your phone but can control in other ways like Alexa or Google Assistant, but things that only work if you use an app to make them work.

Smart things are cool. Not being able to use them without a working phone in hand isn't nearly as cool.

My example, and what made me realize how this is a horrible idea, was a simple light I bought. It's designed to hang over houseplants or a fish tank or wherever you want that nice daylight look, and uses an app to fine-tune the color output of the light and to set on/off times. The problem is that the only way to turn the light on or off is through the app or literally unplugging the power supply.

That became an issue when I left my Pixel 4 in the cupholder of the car and my wife went to visit a friend. I wanted that damn bright light off and couldn't reach behind the bookshelf to unplug it, and I was stuck with it in my eyes while I was trying to play some Rainbow Six PvP. I don't mind losing, but I hate to be that guy with some lame excuse like the light was in my eyes or my dog ate my keyboard.

My case is pretty comical; even I had to chuckle. But others aren't nearly as humorous. Imagine being locked out of your shiny new Tesla because some online server was out of whack and you couldn't get in while the app was down. Or you can't get the front door to your house or your hotel room unlocked because of an app glitch.

Yeah. I'm starting to think that everything "smart" needs a dumb fallback.

Switches and keys risk becoming the next 3.5mm headphone jack. If it ain't broke, why try to fix it?

There should be a switch on my fancy light. There should be a key for the Tesla Model 3. Your house or hotel room door should always have a keypad, et cetera, and et cetera. Unfortunately, it looks like things might be heading in the other direction as Apple, Samsung, Google and almost every other company that makes smart products or automobiles have joined forces to do away with car keys altogether. Good luck if you accidentally lock your phone inside your car, right?

The future isn't bad, nor are any of these products. And using our phones to do things like open doors or change the brightness of weird Chinese sun lamps is pretty cool. But we can't be sure we will always have a phone in our hands, so let's not completely abandon the "dumb" way until we all have bio-mechanical implants or something like a Nest Mini without shouting distance at all times.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.