There’s a (Required) App for That
Kelli B. Grant / SmartMoney
If you’re looking for a cutting edge way to track your blood pressure or play ball, there’s an app for that. In fact, a whole host of hot new gadgets won’t live up to their potential until buyers add an accompanying smartphone app that controls the device or improves its function. Cool? Yes. Worth the premium? Not always.
Dozens of technology companies are now selling devices that use apps as, essentially, a remote control, for everything from a $300 flying toys to your television set. It’s a blatant play for the 61.5-million person smartphone market; already, a quarter of adults in the U.S. use the U.S. regularly use mobile apps, according to the Pew Research Center, and Gartner Research estimated app spending last year reached an estimated $4.5 billion—a figure they expect to nearly quintuple by 2013.
With smartphone users spending money for apps, it’s not a giant leap to expect them to pay extra for a gadget that comes with an app. Though the apps themselves are typically free, the devices themselves can cost up twice the price of a comparable non-enhanced device.
These new app-enhanced gadgets use a phone’s Bluetooth connection to link up with a separate device, much like a phone and wireless headset interact. For example, when meat thermometer iGrill is synced with its associated app, a chef can walk to the other end of the house and still monitor grill temperatures and food status — and even change a steak order from medium to well done. In that case, the app sends a signal to the thermometer to adjust and an alert to your phone when the meat is ready.
It’s the app appeal that device-makers expect to lure customers. And many companies are looking to get in on the action: Using apps to add intelligence to other devices was one of the biggest trends at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, said Ben Arnold, a senior research analyst with the Consumer Electronics Association, in a pre-show presentation. Companies are betting that the value-added of an app can be an effective marketing tool, driving otherwise reluctant-to-upgrade buyers to make a purchase. Many people didn’t replace their computers and other gadgets during the recession, and new bells and whistles like app connectivity appeal to shoppers’ pent-up demand, says Jeff Green, an independent retail consultant. That’s true even if the buyer doesn’t plan to use the cool tool in question,
Coolness-factor aside, there are some drawbacks to buying an app-driven device. For starters, they can be much more expensive than an unenhanced version. Online, an electronic blood pressure monitor costs $30 to $70, depending on its features. App-enhanced models from iHealth and Withings cost $100 and $130, respectively. A Withings representative says it’s worth it: the device offers improved functionality because it tracks morning and evening values, as well as daily averages, all of which can be monitored online or via your phone – and sent directly to your doctor. But for consumers, it’s important to make sure the app adds a feature they’ll actually use – which doesn’t often happen, says Kit Yarrow, a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. Nonetheless, “Those new features make the item more valuable to them,” prompting consumers to buy, she says.
Another drawback: Many of these gadgets don’t work without the app. Switch to a handset the app doesn’t support (most seem to be only for iPhone or Android), or the gadget maker that made the app goes out of business, and you’re out of luck, says Brad Spirrison, the managing editor for app review site Appolicious . To avoid that hiccough, look for devices that function on their own and are priced competitively without the app. Cobra’s $170 app-enhanced radar detector uses lights and beeps to alert drivers to approaching speed traps without an app – but those warnings are made clearer when hooked up to an iPhone that can visually show how close you are to that speed, or map out all nearby red light cameras and other speed traps before you hit the road. (And the iGrill will work without the app, just without the ability to control from afar.)
Another good bet: gadgets whose makers offer an open platform to allow other developers to create apps that work with the product, Spirrison says. A device that allows outside developers access leaves the door open for the gadget to get even better, analysts say, since app-building gadget-users often figure out enhancements quickly. A spokesman for Orbotix says most of the games consumers can play on its robotic sphere (due out in late 2011 and controlled entirely by a smartphone app), were created by third-party developers who were interested in the devices’ capabilities.