Smartphone-only systems can be really dumb

iSmartAlarm, Viper, and Doorbot have strong appeal, until you realize their mobile focus is also why they can't work in the real world

I love mobile technology. I've been traveling without a laptop for a couple years now, and there's little I can't do when on the road for as long as a week. My iPad and iPhone are usually nearby, even when I'm using my Mac. Typically, an Android or device or two is in reach as well. Of course, I use Passbook religiously for airplane boarding passes, and I check in and manage my trips from my smartphone. I think nothing of using my iPhone to control my presentations when I'm on stage, and it's common when friends come over that someone beams a funny YouTube video to the TV from their iPhone via the Apple TV (one day I hope to find a way for my Android-using friends to join in). I even like to look up my Nest's status from my smartphone, though I really don't need to.

But sometimes, being mobile-centric can go too far. Mobile devices are great, but they cannot do everything. Yet some products assume, to their peril, that they can.

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I came across two types of such products recently. One is the smartphone-controlled home-alarm system, offered by both iSmartAlarm and Viper. The other is the Doorbot, a video doorbell. Both have immediate appeal, but soon you realize they're not practical precisely because they are mobile-only. They're good cautionary examples for product designers and buyers alike. In both cases, the interface to the device is your smartphone and only your smartphone -- which is the problem.

Take the iSmartAlarm or Viper. Paying a company like AT&T or ADT $35 per month to monitor your home alarm is a lot of money for little real service. For example, when my neighbor's house was recently broken into, it took the alarm company nearly 10 minutes to contact the homeowner. By that time, the thief was long gone and I had already called the police, having heard the alarm go off and ventured out to investigate. The appeal of an alarm system that immediately calls and texts you instead, with no monthly fees, is obvious.

But both iSmartAlarm and Viper have a fatal flaw: There's no alarm panel, so you can't give the catsitter, your neighbor, and your visiting mother-in-law a code to unlock the system. You can give them full access via their iPhone or Android smartphone by providing your credentials, if they have one, but that's more access than most people would want to provide for "second-tier" users. You can issue them their own fob that disarms the system and control when it works, which helps address the issue somewhat. But it still means having fobs for each person, which aren't as easy to get as spare keys and are bulky to carry. A shared alarm panel is easier, especially for your occasional users.

Likewise, the Doorbot also relies on your smartphone too much, though it works with both Android and iOS. If someone rings your doorbell, you get a message on your smartphone and can have the device show a video stream from its camera. You can see who's there, as well as talk to the person. If you install a proprietary door-locking mechanism, you can even unlock the door for the person, no matter where you are. But if you don't have your phone with you or if it's out of juice, you can't see who's at the door. Again, there's no panel for use in your house.

Both products seem to assume you live alone and have no family or friends -- I'm not sure how else to explain the notion of being tied to only a smartphone. They don't address the common reality that there's a central console anyone can use -- anyone who's at home can hear the doorbell and deal with it, or anyone provided a code can gain access via the alarm system to the home. It's as if their designers forgot how these devices are actually used, so focused were they on the mobie components. Mobile devices are very individual and personal, but alarm systems and doorbells are not.

The iSmartAlarm, Viper, and Doorbot could all be so powerful if they weren't mobile-only. If instead they supplemented the use of a common console with the convenience of mobility, they'd be winners. There's a whole class of products that can mix personal and common usage, and mobile is a great conduit for the personal part.

This article, "Smartphone-only systems can be really dumb," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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