Smart locks – not the key to a smart home?


Just this week another smart home gadget was brought to market, gaining attention in multiple media sources. August is a new smart lock concept designed by Yves Béhar, a renowned designer behind many tech products. But is the design enough for this lock to rise above the rest? Many similar concepts have come out in the last years, none of which have become hits the same way another smart home device, the Nest thermostat has.

My first encounter with smart locks was probably about 10 years ago already during a visit to a housing expo in my hometown in Finland. Swedish lock manufacturer, the largest lock company in the world by sales volume, ASSA Abloy, had just brought their house central locking system to market. Similar to the newer designs, the system would be installed on top of an existing lock. Smartphones weren’t out yet at the time, so it would work with a fob similar to car keys with locking and unlocking buttons. Quite high tech at the time, but attention was taken away from it at the expo by the intelligent sauna that could be turned on with a text message. We love our saunas.

As a big fan of the show Shark Tank, when I first heard of the new August lock I thought it was the same company that got an investment offer on the show. Turns out there are a few entries to this market already. UniKey didn’t end up taking the Sharks’ money, but was brought to market together with a traditional lock manufacturer. Kwikset manufactures the locks whereas UniKey will provide the application to control the lock, the “key”. Why cut margins by not manufacturing it by themselves? UniKey’s founder Phil Dumas says the value is in the services provided, not the actual lock. Most smart locks allow for sending keys to people who need temporary access to your home from your smart device and the systems collect information on who has entered the home, so for example a parent can know when their child has arrived home from school. Having a larger network of people with the smart lock installed reduces the need to educate the user and they will have the app already installed on their phone. The more users they will gather on their lock platform, the more likely they are able to convert users of the app to lock owners. The smart lock companies will make their money in the long run based on the levels of service the lock will offer the user. They could eventually become the locksmiths; you can pay to create keys or pay a subscription fee to support the amount of keys you need.

The new smart locks still have the same flaw, which made my parents go with the traditional lock and key when they changed their locks. They are all powered by batteries which have to be replaced. In the case of August this would happen every year. They are not maintenance free and when it happens to break or the owner’s phone dies, you still need to rely on a traditional key. It’s not a complete replacement, but interestingly it could be an enabler for the new sharing economy. AirBnB locations installed with smart locks could reduce hassle with handling keys. Band training spaces and other shared locations could also benefit from both user access control as well as the records kept of each entry.

The big difference between smart locks and the smart thermostat is that the thermostat ends up paying itself off through reduced heating expenses. This is based on the information it gathers about the inhabitants of the home and their movements, adjusting to their heating needs. As the thermostat already knows when you are in the house, a smart lock isn’t needed for this purpose. It only makes it easier to grant access to your home. They are nice to have, but they do not add much to the security of the home and the value in the smart home ecosystem is low. The cost of one lock is about 200 US dollars so it is quite a price for not having to take your key out of your pocket (you’ll still carry one).

Sources:
http://pando.com/2013/05/08/life-after-shark-tank-the-real-story-of-how-unikey-finally-came-to-market/
http://gizmodo.com/are-smart-locks-secure-or-just-dumb-511093690/all
http://gizmodo.com/heres-your-smart-lock-of-the-future-today-510358843
http://www.wired.com/2014/10/august-smart-lock-review/

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3 responses to “Smart locks – not the key to a smart home?”

  1. 343077ks says :

    Very informative blog, I did not know that smart locks do exist. Obviously, it has many advantages such as that you do not have to have an actual key with you but you can use your phone to open the door. Everyone always has his or her phone with him/her, so it is more convenient to use your phone than a key.

    However, have you also read something about the security issues? How easy is it to break into this information system? It seems to me that when a hacker succeeds to break into the system, this hacker can very easily break into every home with a smart key. Also, what happens if someone steals your phone and tracks down your adress? Is there a way to block your smart lock?

    Furthermore, you write that when the battery of your phone dies, you need to rely on a traditional key. But what happens if the battery of your phone died? Can you also insert a regular key into the smart lock?

    • 356509lr says :

      I did read up on the security of these locks and I have to say that it will not be the biggest issue of these locks. 128-bit encryption of the keys ensures that someone wanting to break into your home would rather do it through a window than try to hack the lock. The keys are unique each time you open the door and most manufacturers state that these keys will not reach their servers so a mass scale attack is not likely.

      If you lose your phone, I would be blocking the phone as the first thing, but I’m sure blocking the lock is possible (they have online interfaces accessible on any device). The phone itself should have a passkey to enter it in the first place if you use it for such a security demanding use.

      All of the locks work with traditional keys, they only cover the inside of the lock. Nobody would even notice you have a smart lock.

  2. Brian says :

    I think that worst case scenario, this kind of technology will improve over time and still become more commonplace. Interesting to see it develop.

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