Control Your Home--From Your Phone

New gadgets bring household automation into the smartphone era

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In 2011, a startup called nest introduced a new thermostat. With its sleek design, circular color touchscreen and approachable interface, it felt more like an iPod than a piece of HVAC equipment. Which makes sense, since Nest was co-founded by Tony Fadell, Apple's longtime iPod head honcho.

By proving that something as mundane as a thermostat doesn't have to be mundane, Nest helped inspire a generation of home-automation products that are now arriving in force. Other distinguished alumni of the consumer-electronics business are joining the fray, including industrial-design guru Yves Béhar, known for fashionable gizmos like the Jawbone headset. He's one of the minds behind August, a front-door lock that lets you use your phone as a key without so much as bothering to remove it from your pocket.

Whatever their purpose, these household products use wireless networking for easy installation and Internet connectivity. No need to rip up your walls and run cabling. They're as much about elegant software as they are about capable hardware--especially software that runs on smartphones, allowing you to use your handset like a remote control.

And unlike such strictly utilitarian forebears as gas meters, devices in this new wave aren't eyesores. "It's hard to understand why others have not focused on this. I mean, this is for a home," says Adam Sager, a 15-year veteran of the security industry whose new project is Canary, a tabletop home-monitoring system. Gleaming and cylindrical, the final product looks as if it might be some sort of audio player. Security may be serious business, but that doesn't mean it can't be stylish too.