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.

  • Exactly! That's been my thinking for a long time. Part of it is also I don't trust me not to screw it up somehow.
  • Using a smartphone to maybe set them up is fine, but I agree, having to need a phone for them is kind of a pain.
  • There can be all sorts of reasons you don't have access to your smartphone. I don't have a spare on hand. What happens when it breaks? I don't want products that depend on having it to function. That's part of why I was slow to adopt 2 factor auth on some things although now I do it.
  • You make a good point. It may be necessary to have a spare phone and sim on hand at this point in time. Specific to smart devices though, can't they all work through voice activation though like a google home or alexa device? And the nest door smart lock has a keypad on it for backup.
  • And then there's also the fact that most (if not all) of these smart devices are insecure AF which means they can be used for nefarious purposes.
  • This is why I like wall switches. You can still use them as normal switches if you have no internet connection.
    Hub required is even better as no internet connection required at all. Just connect every once in awhile for updates.
  • When I read the lead-in, I thought I was going to disagree with you, but when you said, "products that require an app to make them work", I saw that we're on the same page. I have nothing against using an app to set things up, but all the smart products I buy don't require the app to keep them running. The best even have multiple ways of interfacing and programming them. Flexibility is the key.
    "Yeah. I'm starting to think that everything "smart" needs a dumb fallback."
    Agreed. Absolutely.
  • I have a Vicks thermometer that works only via an app. Bought it because pharmacy was sold out of other thermometers. Went to take kids temp and couldn't because they stopped Android compatibility and my wife and her iPhone were at work.
  • This. You sell a product that requires to use the phone, you support the app no matter how few users. You sold the damn thing this way that's your problem.
  • I usaully am a huge tech guy and early adopter. I haven't bought into smart home devices, lamps are easy enough to turn on already, my thermostat stays at the same temperature all the time, I have an eye hope in my door so I don't need a camera. I just don't see the real benefit of these devices at this point, I'm sure one day they will get sophisticated everyone will have them just like smartphones, but they aren't there yet. For one the security just sucks these days, that's enough of a reason to stay away for awhile longer
  • Some things just don't need to be "connected". I have wireless, dimmable lights that come with little handheld remote controls. One remote will operate all the lights in a room, which is what I want. Each bulb comes with one, so if I lose or break one, I have several spares. The remote is right at hand no matter where I left my phone. Nobody can use these to hack my home network because they're not on it.
  • I'll just walk into my house and flip the switch while others are screwing around with their devices. I don't need my stupid phone to control every aspect of my life, the less I have that box in front of me the better IMO.
  • The Blink cameras are a great solution- except my folks don't use smart devices. A web interface would make them a hell of a lot more useful for my elderly parents.