Jul 042011
 
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Front pockets and purses are slowly being emptied of one of civilization’s most basic and enduring tools: the key. It’s being swallowed by the cellphone.

New technology lets smartphones unlock hotel, office and house doors and open garages and even car doors.

It’s a not-too-distant cousin of the technology that allows key fobs to remotely unlock automobiles or key cards to be waved beside electronic pads at office entrances. What’s new is that it is on the device more people are using as the Swiss Army knife of electronics — in equal parts phone, memo pad, stereo, map, GPS unit, camera and game machine.

The phone simply sends a signal through the Internet and a converter box to a deadbolt or door knob. Other systems use internal company networks, like General Motors’ OnStar system, to unlock car doors.

Because nearly everyone has a cellphone, a number of start-ups, lock companies and carmakers are betting on broad acceptance of the technology.

Schlage, a major lock maker, markets a system that lets homeowners use their mobile phones to unlock their doors from miles away, and manage their home heating and air-conditioning, lights and security cameras. Customers buy locks that are controlled by wireless radio signals sent from an Internet-connected box in their home.

Recently, Dwight Gibson, vice president for connected home solutions at Ingersoll Rand, Schlage’s parent, said that he used the system to let a friend into his house while he was sitting at his desk at work. “She thought it was magic,” he said.

Daimler-Benz now has it on its Mercedes.  Zipcar, the car sharing service, has a mobile phone app that allows customers to unlock their car doors by pressing a button on their phone screen that looks like a lock. They have used it 250,000 times since it was introduced two years ago.

In October, General Motors introduced an app that lets owners of most 2011 G.M. models lock and unlock the doors and start the engine remotely. It allows car owners to warm up the engine on a frigid day or fire up the air-conditioning on a hot one from the comfort of their office cubicle, said Timothy Nixon, who oversees “infotainment” products for the automaker. “In the winter, when my wife and I went to dinner and the check came, I pulled out my phone and started the car,” he said. “By the time we got to it, it was toasty and warm.”

Other times, Mr. Nixon has landed after a flight and used his phone to double-check that he had locked his car door at his departure airport.

But having a phone double for entry or ignition does not yet feel fail-safe. “You don’t want a dead phone battery and discover you can’t go anywhere,” Mr. Nixon said.

It’s unlikely you’d hide a spare phone under a rock or in the bushes. (Though a homeowner may want to stash a physical house key outside in case the home Internet connection goes down.)

Another sticking point is that the technology remains fairly cumbersome by requiring users to push buttons on their phone to establish a connection with a system in the car or house.

Mobile phone industry analysts say that process will get easier with the emergence of a technology called near field communications, or N.F.C. It allows a phone to be waved like a magnetic card near a device that can capture the signal and click open a door.

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