2014-08-27

How Apple Thinks About Smart Homes

The features of Apple’s new HomeKit framework for app developers show where Cupertino is placing its bets.



When iOS 8 ships next month it will offer a feature you can't see—yet it could radically alter your day-to-day life more than any other function on your iPhone.

It’s HomeKit: a developer framework built by Apple to enable the smart devices in your house to unify around your iOS. We spoke to five leading device manufacturers to find out how Apple’s unifying the unruly world of intelligent things and how, in the process, it will make your house into a very smart home.

Segregation On A Digital Scale

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a broad term that encompasses the increasing number of smart devices that have begun replacing the "dumb" non-connected appliances around our homes. These are devices like Kwikset smart locks or the Nest Thermostat or Philips’ Hue smart lights. Devices that give the impression that by obtaining more and more of them you are turning your house into a fabled "smart home."

Yet as "smart" as these devices are on an individual level it’s quickly become evident that simply throwing them all together under one roof doesn’t make your house into a smart home. That’s because a true smart home is one that has a universal interface that grants you effortless control over—and seamless communication between—all the elements inside your house.

But as it stands now, that’s not possible. Instead every smart IoT device in your house currently requires its own proprietary app to control it. There’s one app for the lights, another app for the thermostat, and yet another for the TV. Each app has a different interface, a different communication protocol, a different way of telling your smart device what you want it to do. It’s segregation on a digital scale and the lack of a unifying ecosystem and centralized control hub between these individual smart devices means it’s not possible for them to equal anything greater than the sum of their parts. Thus, a true "smart home" remains elusive.

The solution to this digitally segregated state of the smart home, of course, is a centralized hub that allows all your IoT devices to talk to each other and be controlled via one unified interface. And that is exactly what Apple hopes to do with its new HomeKit framework coming to your iPhone in iOS 8.

Giving Home Automation A Voice

"The concept of the smart home has been around for quite some time, but implementation has been slow," says Mike Watson, vice president of product strategy at Cree, maker of smart lighting products, and one of the first companies to sign on to Apple’s HomeKit initiative. "With the introduction of HomeKit and other similar devices, we’re excited that there’s finally the recognition that there needs to be interoperability amongst multiple types of devices and manufacturers, with a focus on providing actual consumer value—that’s a fundamental difference between today’s smart home market and the past."

Indeed, "consumer value" could be the tagline for HomeKit as the unifying framework will not only allow users better control of their homes—it also has the potential to reduce their energy costs and lighten their environmental footprint as well.

But perhaps the most shocking thing about such a major and promising feature of iOS 8 is the fact that though HomeKit is a unifying hub, it has no app. That’s right: It's all done through Siri. Thanks to HomeKit you’ll now be able to tell Siri to "Turn on the kitchen lights" or "Lock my back door" and—as long as the smart device you are using supports HomeKit—your will be done.

On the user’s end HomeKit works by grouping your smart devices by location, name, and action. First you name all the rooms in your house, which is how HomeKit (via Siri) knows what devices are in which rooms. For example, you may name one bedroom "master bedroom" and the other "son’s bedroom." Next you give your smart devices names. So if you have two Kwikset locks—one on the front door and one on the back—you’ll want to name one "front door lock" and the other "rear door lock." Finally you want to give the actions your smart devices support names as well. So if you have a smart shower faucet you might call its action "run the bath." Once all this is done you’ll be able to control any smart device in your home—indeed, even multiple ones at the same time—simply by telling Siri, for example, "Turn off the lights in the kitchen, lock the back door, and run the bath upstairs."

And, like magic, the smart devices in your house have now unified to create your very own smart home.

"Integration with Siri will allow for added convenience to users and a more hands-off experience," says Chris Allen, CEO of iDevices, makers of the popular iGrill and Kitchen Thermometer, when I ask him what the biggest benefit of Apple’s approach to home automation is. "The user experience will be very easy and adaptable with the ability to securely pair and control devices throughout your home. The integration of HomeKit into iOS 8 will ensure the best possible user experience—a change from what we have been seeing in the home automation market today."

Bringing Order To The Internet Of Things’ Wild West

And a change in the home automation market is exactly what's needed according to other developers I spoke with.

That’s because HomeKit firmly sits at the intersection of two major—and lucrative—trends in the tech industry that were in danger of becoming too convoluted to operate in. IDC estimates that the Internet of Things market will be worth $7.1 trillion by 2020. Add to that GSM Association’s prediction that the connected home sector will be a $44-billion-a-year industry by 2017. Yet with no clear standards or unifying ecosystem, each of these sectors were at risk of becoming a coder’s version of the Wild West.

"From a developer’s perspective, having a common standard to develop toward brings development clarity that makes meeting a standard more attainable," says Cree’s Watson. "Apple’s approach fosters interoperability, but allows for differentiation of value from each manufacturer. Most importantly, coalescing toward a standard brings a known and technology-friendly consumer base to all connected device manufacturers. During this process we’ve found the platform to be well-thought-out. [But] what we’re most excited about is being able to see it in implementation and learn how HomeKit makes consumers’ lives easier and better, not ours."

Carlos Raventos, lead Mobile developer for Netatmo, maker of smart weather stations and thermostats, agrees with Watson.

"HomeKit is making it easier to develop reliable, high-quality apps at a faster pace," he says. "We anticipate a new category of apps to appear that control most of the smart devices at home despite different types of devices and varying manufacturers. This was extremely hard to accomplish before HomeKit. Developers either didn’t have access to APIs or had to implement proprietary APIs from manufacturers individually." But all that’s changed now thanks to HomeKit.

Is An iHome In Your Future?

Then of course there is the big question: If the smart home and Internet of Things industry is really going to be worth over £7 trillion combined in just five years’ time, why did Apple—a hardware company—choose to create a software framework that enables better interoperability between existing third-party smart home devices instead of getting their hands in the hardware game themselves? After all, Google—a software company—just plunked down over $3 billion for smart thermostat maker Nest.

Many developers I spoke with, who did not want to go on record, said that it’s very likely that with Apple’s vast resources it will enter the smart home market with hardware offerings in the future. What these hardware offerings might be is anyone’s guess, however.

It’s hard to see Apple making a smart version of every device in your house—from toilets to toasters to door locks—even though our smart home will eventually contain all those things. What the company is probably doing, according to multiple developers, is playing the "sure-and-steady card" like it did with the MP3 player: seeing what others do first and then radically revolutionizing the hardware it thinks it's capable of disrupting.

And though Apple could easily become a competitor with any of the companies its HomeKit framework is making life easier for today, all the developers I spoke with are glad Apple has their fingers in the smart home game now.

"There are a broad range of products within the smart home market: locks, garage door openers, light bulbs, thermostats, cameras, switches, and more," says Netatmo’s Raventos. "Each of them have an important role within the future of the connected home. It was a smart move for Apple to trust manufacturers that have experience within each of these individual categories. Now industry players can devote all their energy and resources, while leveraging the HomeKit platform. We’re excited to see how this will transform the category—and homes of the future."

[Modern loft: Zastolskiy Victor via Shutterstock]




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