In this age of rapid transformation, the house key has been surprisingly resistant to change.
Cars have mostly switched to key fobs. Hotels and office buildings favor the pass card.
And yet the little metal keys we carry around aren’t that different from the ones carried by our parents, their parents or their parents, going back to before the Civil War, when Linus Yale Jr. invented the cylinder lock, modifying an ancient Egyptian design.
That was before the Internet of Things, an approach to life in which every household fixture, no matter how unsexy or long neglected by designers, can be rewired for digital living.
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And now, like the thermostat and the slow cooker, the house key and its mate, the front-door lock, are going “smart” too.
In the last year or so, several electronic door locks from industry bigwigs like Schlage and Kwikset have hit the market, making it possible to unlock your home using a smartphone, tablet or computer.
And two new locks created by tech startups, which are forthcoming, promise the hands-free ease of unlocking the door automatically as you approach it.
Many experts say that any kind of lock-and-key system provides only good-enough security and is basically a deterrent for the honest. The dishonest often skip the front door altogether and break in through a window or another entry point.
So the sales pitch for smart locks appears not to be additional security but convenience. No more fishing in your pockets for the keys while holding grocery bags. Or racing home to let the plumber in. Or, if you install the Schlage Touchscreen Deadbolt, paying a hardware store to make duplicate keys.
Steve Down, who oversees residential security for Schlage, says the Touchscreen eliminates that whole experience. A pass code is entered, either in person or, if the lock is connected to a home-automation system, from miles away by smartphone, tablet or any other Internet-connected device. Pass codes can be given to family members, houseguests and service providers.
“You can have 30 pass codes at any one time,” Down says. “I’m guessing that most of us don’t need more than that.”
Joshua Mangerson, of Brooklyn, N.Y., was one homeowner who was finding his key situation inconvenient. “Tedious” is how he described running down from the roof deck two floors above his apartment every time a guest showed up and needed to be buzzed into the building.
Mangerson considered installing an intercom on his roof deck, but he was quoted a price of $2,000, he says. And giving every visitor a mechanical key in advance would have been impractical, if not impossible. Instead, he paid a few hundred dollars for KISI, an access-control system that, like the Schlage lock, allows users to control the lock with a smartphone and distribute “e-keys” to visitors.
“Whenever my wife and I have a get-together I say, ‘Here’s your key’ and send one to everybody,” Mangerson says. “Then I deactivate it the next day.”
Bernhard Mehl, a co-founder of KISI, says the technology is aimed at urbanites, many of whom have busy work lives, travel frequently and live in apartment buildings, where it isn’t feasible to hide a spare key under a flower pot in the yard.
Urbanites have a particular anxiety about losing their house keys, he says, since the front door is often the only way in and neighbors are often strangers. Being asked to keep a friend’s spare set is a sacred duty. (In one episode of “Seinfeld,” Kramer broke “the covenant of the keys” by making himself too comfortable in Jerry’s apartment, that way losing his key-keeping privileges.)
“We are trying to solve city problems,” says Mehl, who is German and encountered such difficulties when he moved to New York and needed to manage his apartment in Munich. “Especially also a mobile-lifestyle problem.”
Even some professional locksmiths aren’t reluctant to replace the standard lock-and-key. Terry Whin-Yates, the president and chief executive of the Vancouver, B.C.-based company Mr. Locksmith and an outspoken voice in the industry, says his front door has an electronic lock by Schlage that he hooked up to a home-automation system.
“I can unlock my door, I can look at my house and I can turn lights on and off, all from my iPhone,” Whin-Yates says.
Yves Behar, a designer in San Francisco, isn’t a fan of the mechanical key either, which he sees as cumbersome and easily lost. But the idea of replacing it with a keypad or another device that you have to operate before entering your home isn’t sufficiently “magical,” in his view.
August Smart Lock, an access-control product developed by the company of which Behar is a co-founder, is about the size and shape of a hockey puck and uses Bluetooth to communicate directly with your smartphone. The technology works with your existing lock and, for approved users, the lock opens automatically.
“For me, it was about making the experience invisible,” he says. “You don’t even have to look at your phone.”
August Smart Lock works even without power or Wi-Fi service, Behar says. And if a smartphone is lost or stolen, he adds, the user can alert a service that will deactivate the August app.
KEVO, a Bluetooth-powered lock introduced last year by Kwikset, retains a cylinder for a mechanical key, says Keith Brandon, the company’s director of residential access solutions.
Although users can operate the lock with their smartphones, “it’s comforting for most consumers to have that mechanical backup,” he says.
Whin-Yates, the professional locksmith, does just that. In addition to the Schlage electronic lock on his front door, he installed a second, mechanical Schlage deadbolt for when he is away from home for an extended period.
“The key is still the backup,” Whin-Yates says.
It may be disappearing, he adds, but it will continue to be in use for a long time to come.
“When they dig up our civilization,” he says, “they’re still going to find a bunch of bones and a set of keys.”