The venerable house key enters the digital age

The New York TimesJune 11, 2014 

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 - part security device, part domestic totem - 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. 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. The true home fortress is protected by alarms - or gunmen.

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, said 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 said. “I’m guessing that most of us don’t need more than that.”

Joshua Mangerson, who lives in Brooklyn, 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, who owns a company called Wavsys that builds cell service networks, considered installing an intercom on his roof deck, but he was quoted a price of $2,000. 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 said. “Then I deactivate it the next day.”

Bernhard Mehl, a co-founder of KISI, said 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, 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,” said 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.”

So far, Mehl and his partners have approached commercial and residential landlords, who they hope will install KISI as a control for the building’s exterior doors. Once the main door is KISI-equipped, Mehl said, they can expand to individual units within a building. Mangerson, an early adopter of KISI, said the technology has, in fact, liberated him. Instead of waiting for his building to adopt the technology, he hooked up the small, circular device to the intercom in his apartment, which allows him to control the door buzzer from his smartphone. Now he goes for walks or makes quick runs to the deli without carrying his keys.

“I have my phone on me so I buzz myself back in,” he said. “I’m never locked out of my house.”

In the rush to link every life task to our smartphones, however, it may be wise to pause a moment and ask: Does the mechanical key really need to be replaced? After all, it’s a time-tested tool that requires no instruction manual and isn’t vulnerable to power failures.

Beyond its essential function, the key has given us cultural catchphrases (latchkey kid, key party), an all-purpose metaphor (the key to success, the key to happiness) and a fragrance from Justin Bieber. And then there is the key exchange, a relationship benchmark so freighted with meaning, it has played a role in numerous breakups and rom-coms.

The key also features in civic ritual: Without it, what will future mayors present to visiting dignitaries - the iPhone to the city?

And yet, it turns out that a lot of people have little or no affection for their keys. Take Don Norman, director of design at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of “The Design of Everyday Things.”

“I’ve never liked the key,” Norman said. “I need a key for my home. I need a key for my office. I need a key for my bicycle. It’s something else I have to carry.”

That most keys are more or less identical - small, silver- or brass-colored, a little scuffed - is evidence that people have little attachment to them, Norman added: “When you really like it and it’s part of you, you make it personal. The key, I don’t think is.”

While he agreed that exchanging keys is an act invested with emotion, Norman said: “I don’t think the ritual requires the physical key. It is the exchange that is the source of emotion, not the physical key.”

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, British Columbia-based company Mr. Locksmith and an outspoken voice in the industry, said 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 said.

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, the 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. (The concept is so futuristic that the release date has been delayed several times while kinks are being worked out, although Behar said it should soon be available.)

“For me, it was about making the experience invisible,” he said. “You don’t even have to look at your phone.”

Going keyless, of course, raises all sorts of practical concerns. How will you unlock your door if your smartphone is lost or stolen? Can you still operate the lock if there’s a power failure or your Wi-Fi goes down? What if your phone’s battery dies? Will door locks be susceptible to hackers? Each smart-lock maker has addressed these questions but not in ways that are always satisfying.

August Smart Lock works even without power or Wi-Fi service, Behar said. And if a smartphone is lost or stolen, he added, the user can alert a service that will deactivate the August app. But to do so requires logging in to an Internet-enabled device. And as with losing a mechanical key, there is still the hassle of tracking down a friend or relative to let you in (or using an old-school key, which defeats the point of the technology).

When Mehl was asked how battery loss affects entry with KISI, he suggested going to a nearby Starbucks to recharge your phone, an inconvenient solution to a problem that doesn’t exist with a mechanical key.

Security is another concern. Most, if not all, electronic locks have built-in encryption protection and other safeguards. KISI, for instance, is cloud-based and doesn’t require the user to store personal data like a home address. If someone stole your phone, Mehl said, the KISI app would appear to the thief as anonymous as a plain metal key found on the street - except that personal information may be found elsewhere on the phone.

But as Edward Tenner, a historian and visiting researcher at Rutgers and Princeton who has written extensively about technology and culture, pointed out, the larger trend in criminality has shifted away from acts like burglary toward those of computer-based crime.

“In that sense,” Tenner said, “equipping your house with an electronic lock system is running in the wrong direction.”

He added: “A totally electronic house door means that you have to be confident that the system is never going to fail. With any battery-controlled system, it introduces a level of uncertainty.”

Tenner believes it is the urban affluent who will embrace electronic locks as a symbol of luxury housing, while others may opt for a hybrid setup: a smartphone-controlled lock with a mechanical key as a backup.

“You might be carrying fewer keys,” he said, “but you would keep carrying the keys, in case.”

KEVO, the Bluetooth-powered lock introduced last year by Kwikset, retains a cylinder for a mechanical key, said 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 said.

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 said.

It may be disappearing, he added, but it will continue to be in use for a long time to come.

“When they dig up our civilization,” he said, “they’re still going to find a bunch of bones and a set of keys.”

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