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A non-connectivity approach can be practical for a smart home

I recently chatted with the folks at BenjiLock By Hampton, who showed off a trio of new devices — a small padlock, a bike lock, and a front door deadbolt — at CES 2021. Since I write about smart home technology, the front door deadbolt naturally caught my eye.

The BenjiLock By Hampton Fingerprint Door Lock replaces your existing deadbolt and gives you three different ways of opening your front door. You can use a key, a code, or your fingerprint. But then Hampton told me something that freaked me out just a little bit: The Fingerprint Door Lock does not connect to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or app. At all. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Zero.

Everything you need to do to set up the door lock and get it working is done on the lock itself. There’s an instruction manual and visual cues on the lock that guide you through programming entry codes and up to 10 different fingerprints. Once that’s done, you’re good to go. No extra app taking up space on your phone. This is intentional.

Benjilock upens with your fingerprint.

So, the first question you have to ask is:Is this a smart lock? Is this a smart home product? Understandably, this concept took up the bulk of our remaining time on the call. It turns out that there are a number of practical and beneficial reasons for taking this non-connectivity approach. Let’s get the practical concerns out of the way right off the bat.

Perfectly impractical

First and foremost, non-connectivity is cheaper. There are no Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or NFC components to put inside the lock. There are no developers to keep on staff trying to furiously keep up with software releases for Android and iOS. There’s no need to bake in new features and test them on Android 8, 9, 10, 11, and so on.

Keeping on the software side of things, adding additional connectivity and radios makes your locks more vulnerable to hacks and outside intruders. The safest box is the one with no opening, after all. The more access points you put into a box, a building, or a front door lock, the more ways there are for something unwanted to get in or out.

Well, let’s just say, “one of these things is not like the others.”

But more holistically, the people at BenjiLock by Hampton, and BenjiLock’s original founder, Robbie Cabral, recognize that the whole point of putting fingerprint sensors on devices is because users want to essentially be their own key for their own locks. People don’t necessarily want to whip out their phones to unlock their front door, or their padlock at the gym. In fact, at the gym, many people lock their phones inside their lockers, making app connectivity pointless.

Fingerprints are always there, and they help people connect with their technology. They don’t necessarily want a phone to get in between them and the task they’re trying to accomplish. Many certainly don’t want yet another app installed on their phone that already has six pages of home screens. Speaking as a person who has an entire folder dedicated to smart home control apps, I can certainly agree with that sentiment.

No updates for you!

Of course, there are downsides. As I mentioned earlier, if there’s no internet connectivity for the locks, there’s no ability to update firmware or add new features to a smart lock. For example, if BenjiLock by Hampton decides to take a page from Tapplock’s book and use a series of latch clicks to open a padlock, they don’t have any way to update.

It’s also harder to share access to your locks. If you’re going to have a house sitter while you go on vacation, you need to give that person their own unique code and/or program their fingerprint into your lock. Then, you have to remember to remove it later. It would be a lot easier to open an app and generate a temporary code for them. These locks lack that capability.

A folder dedicated to smart home control
Adam Doud/Digital Trends

I was also quick to point out that one of the best parts about a smart home is the fact that all its components can work together. In my Vivint smart home, if my smoke detector goes off, all the Philips Hue lights in my house come on and all my doors unlock automatically. To use a less dire example, when I come home at night and punch my code into my front door, the alarm disarms and the lights come on in my living room. It’s that kind of smart connectivity that takes a collection of smart devices and turns them into a smart home.

BenjiLock by Hampton doesn’t have that capability and the locks it’s releasing at CES never will have that capability. For me, that’s not necessarily a deal breaker. It’s actually refreshing to not have to add another app to my Smart Home Control folder. For devices like the padlock and the bike lock, both of which will probably be far away from connectivity when they’re in use, a lack of app connectivity makes perfect sense. For a front door lock, whose job it is to secure your home, where you presumably have Wi-Fi all the time, it’s a harder argument to make.

What makes a smart home smart?

That brings us back to our original question — are these smart devices? I think so. You don’t necessarily need an app to be considered smart. Using your fingerprint to unlock devices in your world is pretty smart. The term “smart” implies a certain amount of connectivity, but I think it’s fair to give Hampton a pass here. Because when it comes to locks and security, most people are at the locks physically, so it makes sense to let them just interact with the lock and not their phones. Taking away that extra layer of technology between the user and the product is a good thing.

But it does fall short of a true “smart home” appliance. These devices will always feel disconnected from the home as a whole. It’s odd when you can control your lights, your thermostat, your door and window sensors, your sprinklers, your TVs, and your blinds from your smartphone, but not your front door? Well, let’s just say, “one of these things is not like the others.” Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Hampton thinks it’s good. I’m not sure, but I think it might be OK.

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