It sounds like science fiction.
You walk up to your front door. There’s a small chime, a whir, and your door unlocks. And it only works for you or the people you approve. No one else can get in.
That’s how the August lock, made by a startup of the same name, works. Using a combination of a smartphone app and a Bluetooth connection, the August lock eliminates the need to use your house key. It also lets you generate new virtual keys that people — guests, the plumber, your housekeeper — can use during specified times.
The company was co-founded by Jason Johnson and the designer Yves Behar. (Behar is known for designing tech stuff like the Jawbone UP fitness band, PayPal’s new logo, and the computer for One Laptop Per Child.) August goes on sale on the company’s website and at the Apple Store this week for $US250. Business Insider spoke to Johnson and Behar a few weeks before the launch.
Below is an edited transcript of our interview.
Business Insider: What kind of problem does a smart lock solve? I can get into my apartment just fine with my key.
Behar: Two million people get locked out of their homes in New York every year. Four people out of five own a key that they don’t know what it does. The thing Jason and I have heard constantly for the last two years every time we show this project is “I hate keys.” So it seems like a good problem to solve, especially in light of the sharing economy, the Airbnbs of this world. I think we’re social people also. We want to be able to invite people and give access without having to make keys every time.
BI: Do you see this as a singular product, or will you eventually make other smart gadgets for the home?
Johnson: The company is called August. It’s also the adjective “august,” which means majestic, grandeur, and beauty. So we are making something that we believe is beautiful and adds to the home. We’re very focused right now on redefining what is the entry method to the home. Traditionally, we’ve had these locks, which are really designed to keep people out, and what we really wanted to do was flip that around and say, “Can we create a system that brings people in, and how can we reduce the friction to access to the home by making it easy to give a key to someone you want to give access to your home, whether it be a family member or a friend or a service provider and make it really simple?”
BI: Technology moves quickly. We upgrade our phones every year or two. You’re likely going to keep improving August, so does that mean we’ll constantly have to upgrade our homes in the future too?
Behar: I’m a huge fan of the ability for hardware to constantly get better. We recently announced with Jawbone a firmware update that doubles the battery life. We did the same with the big Jambox speaker. So there will be a lot of things we can do, whether it’s improving the software or the firmware as the product and the service evolve. The other thing for Jason and I is — no pun intended — this is sort of the entry into the smart home. How it connects with other things within the home, other utilities within the household, and how it’s linked to an individual rather than just presence. A lot of devices can tell whether there’s a human moving around the house. But that’s not the same for me or my teenage kids. They want different things. They want the music to be different or the lighting to be different. There’s a lot of connectivity and a lot of things that start with coming into the house every evening and knowing who it is.
BI: A lot of people are working on the connected home and creating wireless standards to make sure all these gadgets can talk to each other. How do you decide which one to pick? Or do you just accept them all?
Johnson: We have an API and we will allow most of these standards to work with our API. And many companies are working with our API. But one thing that’s very important, of course, is that this isn’t just a lightbulb or something inside your home. This is the entry to your home. So security is of the highest importance to us. We have to make sure the people who use our API are doing it in a very safe, trusted, reliable way, so there’s a set of processes that we’re putting in place as we work with these different partners to make sure they follow those guidelines.
BI: What about Nest? They just make smart thermostats and smoke detectors now, but they have Google’s backing. What happens to you if they decide tomorrow to make a smart lock?
Johnson: One thing we know for sure after working on this for two years is that making a smart door lock that is reliable and as feature-rich as what we’ve developed is a tremendous amount of work. It’s not a trivial thing. And there will be people who make similar products and in many ways I think that will be good. This is an entirely new product category and it will help educate consumers on the value of smart door locks, but we think we’ve developed the most sophisticated and reliable and secure smart door lock and we’re very excited to bring it to market.
Behar: We’re also focused on building a great brand. This is not a techie product that’s just talking to Silicon Valley. This is a mainstream product and we want to address a lot of people and their needs. There may be products at some point that do similar things, but we also believe people will rely on us and trust us in the way they trust other great brands out there.
BI: What happens if the device runs out of batteries? Am I locked out of my house?
Johnson: We like to remind people that August an additive. We don’t take away from your existing experience. So you can still use your key, and we encourage you to keep your key somewhere, just in case you ignore all the battery warnings we give you. So every time the app connects we pull the battery life and we report that in the app and we send you push notifications letting you know your battery is getting low. So you’ll have multiple opportunities to replace the batteries. If you ignore all those warnings, you can still use a key. We also use AA batteries. One nice thing is when you do take off the cover to replace those batteries, you can just grab some out of a TV remote control or something like that.
BI: A gadget that’s going to be displayed in the home is a very personal thing. How did you make the August look like something most people would feel comfortable showing off?
Behar: From the very beginning we got excited about August because it is a new space. Bringing technology into the home is very different than bringing technology that people have in their office or on their bodies. We really wanted to consider every member of the family. This is not something that just the tech person in the household is going to install and use. This is something everybody is going to use. The design is really based on discretion in every way. The user interface is discrete, the feedback on the product is discrete and subtle. The app is sort of beautiful. We’re working on the user interface and user experience together. The other part is the materiality. We really wanted it to be about a level of quality similar to what you have currently on your door. So the product is all aluminium and steel. It has to reflect the taste of the homeowner, so we have four different colours.
BI: But it doesn’t look like a traditional lock.
Behar: It looks like something new, something you’d be excited to have and something you’d be proud of. It doesn’t look like a 1920s Victorian door handle. I don’t think that would be right for a product that has all this incredible technology embedded in it. To me, it looks like contemporary furniture or a contemporary home accessory.
BI: Suddenly, it seems like everyone and their mother is trying this “smart home” stuff. Is it ever going to be mainstream? Or will it just be something geeks use?
Johnson: There are a lot of people trying a lot of different things, and I’m personally excited about some of those new products. Now, the truth is, the average, mainstream consumer has tried a lot of different gadgets in the home over the years, and there have been a lot of broken experiences with a lot of home technology and home automation. When Yves and I were thinking about the product we wanted to make sure for our first project that we really addressed a real problem. We didn’t see, necessarily, having remote-controllable lights as being something that was a real problem for the average person.
Behar: We also thought that this was the most important part. When you enter and pass through the threshold of the door into your home, this is the starting point of when you can sort of trigger other things. So it seemed like if we solve this hard problem, there are a lot of other easy problems we can address. I think for technology to enter people’s lives it has to be timed right and it has to be the right technology. There has been a lot of complex, very finicky kind of home automation products in the market. There have been a lot of very expensive ones. Home automation was really a rich man’s playground for a long time.
BI: Does that mean home automation is possible now because we all have a smartphone?
Behar: The fact that you have computing on you and around you certainly is. I think when you try to create a technology that will sort of come into people’s everyday life, it has to be the right time. I do think it’s the right timing, the right price point, the right kind of technology that we can bring to the market today. Had we tried to do that 10 years ago it probably would have been more work, actually, than using a regular key. And our standard for success is: Is it easier than what’s out there? Is it easier than the current sort of behaviour and complexity of having to manage a door? And we certainly think we got there.