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Apple hires failed smart lock startup CEO to help build home products

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A new smart home initiative?

Otto smart lock Photo: Otto

He tried to sell a $700 smart lock. His startup went belly-up, leaving employees and contractors in the cold. But now, he’s working for Apple — and leading a new smart home initiative to boot, according to a CNBC report.

To be fair, Sam Jadallah’s smart lock company Otto did produce exactly the kind of gadget we’ve come to expect from Apple: a meticulously engineered device that smacks of luxury, yet with a minimalist external design that doesn’t draw too much attention to itself. And at Apple, he won’t have to worry about finding investors to keep his ideas afloat. (In 2018, Jadallah blamed the death of Otto on a mystery buyer who pulled out at the last moment.)

But the interesting part of this story isn’t who Apple has chosen to lead a smart home initiative, but that Apple might be firing up a new smart home initiative at all.

So far, Apple’s been content to let other companies build devices for its HomeKit ecosystem. Though you could argue that Apple’s HomePod smart speaker is the exception to the rule, it’s been clear since day one that HomePod is more speaker than smart.

But slowly, Apple seems to have gotten the message that Siri needs to get smarter. The company poached Google’s AI boss to improve Siri, put him in charge of all of Apple’s AI efforts, and promoted him to a high-up executive role this winter. Just this week, we found out that Apple bought the AI startup behind conversational voice features like Mattel’s Hello Barbie as well.

Yet none of that necessarily points towards the home, rather than simply making Siri better at answering questions. But this hire, and CNBC’s report, does. Frankly, a big way that Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Assistant have gotten more useful is by controlling more things around the home. If Apple wants to build the kind of ecosystem (and maybe soon lock-in) that Amazon and Google enjoy, it might be time to take a more active role.

CNBC says both Apple and Jadallah declined to comment on its report, but it’s worth noting that Jadallah retweeted it. People typically don’t do that if there’s a major factual error in a story. He also changed his LinkedIn page to reflect his new employment at Apple.