01/20/2012 02:35 pm ET Updated Mar 21, 2012

Cell Phone as Hub of Your Physical World

As I walked around the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, I was struck by how the mobile phone is taking over as the hub of our physical lives.

Nowhere was that more obvious than at LG's booth, where they were pushing home appliances, including refrigerators, washing machines and even a robot that lets you use a cellphone as a command and control center. It was also obvious at the Belkin and Schlage booths -- where they showed products that let you use a cellphone to lock or unlock your front door from anywhere on the planet. Craftsman, meanwhile, showed a garage-door opener that sends you a message if you forget to close it. There are also companies that allow you to use a smartphone as a TV remote control.

Ford has multiple smartphone apps that work with its new line of cars, including ones to help you find recharging stations or see how many miles per gallon you're getting on your hybrid. There also are apps to remotely lock or start your car.

This highlights how mobile devices are actually more useful than PCs.

Back when PCs and Macs were digital hubs

It was 11 years ago that former Apple CEO Steve Jobs declared the Mac a "digital hub," the control center for all our digital devices and the repository of all our data. In 2007, former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates told CNN that "We're making the PCs the place where it all comes together," again stressing the role of the PC as the device for storing data and controlling your other devices. Now we're storing our data in the "cloud," and accessing it from our mobile devices as well as our PCs.

The move toward mobile makes sense for a lot of reasons. First of all, mobile phones are ubiquitous. Even in the United States, there are people who don't use PCs on a regular basis, and most people in the developing world don't have PCs at home. Just about everyone with a pulse has a mobile phone and an increasing number of us are getting smartphones.

Another reason for the shift toward mobile is that the devices are portable. Most people don't carry their laptop or tablet around all day, but how many people do you know who go anywhere without their mobile phone? I never go out the door without checking that I have my keys, my wallet and my phone. And the obvious advantage of smartphones is that they have a screen, a keyboard and a speaker to send you an alert and, as long as you have a data signal, you're always connected to the Internet.

Smart appliances and smart phones

Although it may seem a bit gimmicky, I'm impressed by the vision behind LG's Smart ThinQ line of connected home appliances that communicate with each other and to the Internet via Wi-Fi and other wireless protocols.

It may sound like a joke to have your refrigerator send you a note that your yogurt is about to expire, but if that information is available from your cellphone while you're at the grocery store, it might be useful. The refrigerator has a screen that lets you enter information about each item as you place it in. Not only can it display what it is, when you bought and when it expires, you can also indicate where in the refrigerator you're placing it so you no longer have to wonder where you stashed those leftovers. Eventually these refrigerators will be equipped with barcode readers as well as the ability to scan your receipt to automatically determine what you're putting in. I wouldn't be surprised if some grocery stores start uploading your purchases to the cloud to be automatically accessed by your refrigerator and oven.

The refrigerator, of course, can communicate with LG's "smart" oven to let it know what ingredients you have, and can help you cook by finding recipes and programming itself accordingly. The oven can also send a message to your cell phone to let you know when the roast is done. If you're away, you can switch the oven to warming mode so it stops the cooking but maintain a temperature.

LG's washers can send a message to your phone or your TV to let you know when it's time to put the clothes in the dryer. If you're away from home while your clothes are drying, you can remotely put it in spin mode to keep them from getting wrinkled. If the house is on a smart electrical grid, you can program the dryer to turn on when the utility rates are low.

LG also has a "home bot" vacuum cleaner that has a camera to send remote video of what's happening at your house. If George Jetson had one of these, he could use his cell phone to remotely tell his dog Astro to get off the couch.

This article first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News and on