A Phone-Controlled Lock That’s Good Enough, Instead Of Perfect

The redesigned Lockitron, a system for connecting your front door to your smartphone, shows how the ideal solution isn’t always the right one.

At the risk of betraying my true nature as one of those hapless children of the Internet age, I will offer this admission: If your product requires me to screw or drill something, I probably won’t buy it. It’s a problem that a lot of the high-tech home improvement gear you see these days has to grapple with–as people on the whole become less handy, how do we make home hardware easier to install? The team responsible for the Nest Learning Thermostat has been intent upon simplifying the installation process with every new version, and they’re unabashedly proud of their success in doing so. But in their first go round, the folks behind Lockitron weren’t quite as successful in this regard. The smartphone-controlled door lock was being held back by all the screwing and drilling required to install it. So the team went back to the drawing board and came up with a much more primitive (and much more sensible) solution.


That first Lockitron was essentially a piece of home automation gear. You installed an entirely new lock in your front door, allowing you to control it–and give your friends temporary access to it–via smartphone. But most people found it a challenge to set up. “It could take upwards of a half hour,” founder Cameron Robertson told me, “and sometimes you had to break out a drill. People would hire locksmiths to install it.” It was less than ideal. But that initial design also meant that the product was unrealistic for a huge swath of the potential market: renters. So they decided to try a different approach.


The new Lockitron, currently in pre-order with a targeted launch next March, cleverly solves some of those problems. Instead of being a lock itself, it’s a small Internet-connected box you install on top of your current deadbolt. When you mash the “unlock” button on the app, the device physically turns the lock underneath it. It’s not a smart lock; it’s a smart little machine that turns your lock. And while that might seem like a step backwards in the quest for a home of the future, in the here and now, it’s incredibly smart. Granted, the new Lockitron only works with standard deadbolt style locks (they account for somewhere around 65% of the U.S. market, Robertson told me), and it still requires you to screw a backplate in between your deadbolt and your door, but that’s significantly less daunting than installing a new lock altogether. And it’s renter friendly. The takeaway is that the most sophisticated solution isn’t always the right one–while having a lock connected directly to the Internet might be the ideal setup, in a lot of ways, an elegant intermediary makes more sense.

That same principle is reflected in the product’s accompanying mobile app, available for iOS and Android. The main screen for locking and unlocking your door remotely has two buttons–one for lock, one for unlock–both of which take up approximately half of your smartphone’s screen. “We aren’t incredible designers,” Robertson told me, “so when we built the first app we knew that we could at least strive for simplicity, and this seems to have worked out for the best.” It’s form following function to an almost comical degree, but it’s exactly what the utility here calls for. When you’re talking about something as important as your house being secure, you don’t want to be poking at some elaborate user interface. You want big, unambiguous buttons.

But the main function of the Lockitron isn’t necessarily about your own interaction with your front door so much as facilitating the interactions of others. In addition to letting you control your lock remotely, the app lets you give other people’s phones access to your door for a fixed period of time. It’s an idea that dovetails nicely with the rise of Airbnb and the sharing economy–that keeping our homes locked up like fortresses precludes some new ways to think about those spaces in general.

“We’ve never been particularly interested in home automation, just access,” Robertson says. “And the thing we thought about access was–it’s inherently social. It inherently involves other people. The challenge with it today is that it gets in the way of a lot of interactions which might otherwise happen. So we take it from a very different perspective of a traditional lock company. While security is of course paramount for us, the flip side is that these systems that have been around for thousands of years are sort of a hindrance. And what can we do if we can share that access on a temporary basis in a safe way.”


For all the smart thinking that went into the Lockitron’s redesign, the way the company is selling the thing might be even more interesting. The product, Robertson explained, was one of the first victims of Kickstarter’s recent push to purge pre-orders from its ranks. So the team decided to try it on their own, setting up an independent, crowdfunded pre-order component to their website. After just a week or so of being live, over 6,600 backers have made nearly a million dollars in pre-orders.


Part of what’s allowed Lockitron’s “ad hoc crowdfunding,” as Robertson termed it, to work is a decision the company made about when they would actually take people’s money–instead of collecting when the 30-day campaign was up, they’re waiting until they’re
ready to ship product to charge customers’ credit cards. It’s a move that “essentially shifts the burden and the risk back onto us, the creators, rather than onto the customers,” Robertson said.

Granted, the money the company had on hand from the product’s first run is what’s allowing them to try the new arrangement, and that’s something that not all hardware startups will be able to emulate. But all in all, Lockitron’s pre-order success proves that crowdfunding might be ready to expand out from the handful of websites that put it on the map to begin with. “Kickstarter has done the legwork of proving that consumers today are willing to do this,” Robertson told me. “I don’t think it would have been possible with our launch last year to do the same thing–and all of the credit there goes to Kickstarter and things like the Pebble Watch that have demonstrated that. But it’s now time for stuff like us to move on.”

You can read more about the Lockitron, or place a pre-order, on the website.