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Home » Technology » Here What We Know About Apple’s Plans for Smart Homes
Here What We Know About Apple’s Plans for Smart Homes

Here What We Know About Apple’s Plans for Smart Homes

THERE’S BEEN LITTLE more than silence since Apple announced HomeKit, which would allow developers to connect smart home devices with iPhones. But it’s only been a year. The important thing to remember about the relative quiet on the HomeKit front is that last year’s announcement wasn’t so much Apple dipping its toe into the water as it is trying to fill an empty pool. That takes time.

Still, HomeKit has come further than you might think. Next week at WWDC, Apple will likely outline just how far it can go.

The Set-Up

APPLE-TV-009edit-482x321While last year’s WWDC demo targeted developers, in a recently published support page, Apple outlined the HomeKit experience from a user’s perspective. It couldn’t be simpler: Buy a HomeKit-compatible connected device, download its related app, and pair app with iPhone through a simple set-up code.

From there, smart home accessory control will be handled by Siri, Apple’s voice-controlled digital assistant, or the iOS Home app. You’ll simply tell your iPhone to dim the kitchen lights, or turn the temperature up in the living room, and your devices will respond in kind. It’s an elegantly simple smart home solution, especially when compared to the pricey, whole-home takeovers that have dominated the landscape to this point. Instead, you can build your own  personal Internet of Things one item at a time, from a variety of sources.

“The appeal is that you don’t have to commit to $1,000 plus up front, or buying a bunch of equipment” says Frank Gillett, a technology analyst for Forrester Research. “You’re buying it $100 or $200 at a time, or you’re buying the next air conditioner, the next mixer, and it just happens to have an app.”

In fact, because so many HomeKit interactions are routed through Wi-Fi or Bluetooth (for now, at least), the only extra equipment you would plausibly need beyond your iPhone and the smart-widget of your choosing is an Apple TV. And even that’s strictly optional.

Much has been made of Apple TV as a smart home “hub,” and while that’s true to an extent, it implies you’ll need one to get HomeKit to work. That’s not the case: Apple indicated in January and confirmed this week that Apple TV simply gives you the ability to control your devices when you’re away from home. Essentially, it’s just another piece of HomeKit-equipped hardware, a relay station for when you’re out of range. The good news (especially in light of a recent New York Times report saying that Apple won’t show off new Apple TV hardware next week, as had been expected) is that the current generation of Apple TV will do the job just fine.

The Gear

So using Apple’s smart home solution is easy enough. Things get trickier, though, when you start looking at your use options.

There are currently 13 HomeKit-enabled accessoriesavailable, from four manufacturers. They’re a standard range of sensors, lights, and thermostats, and none were available until this week. Frankly, they weren’t quite worth the wait.

“What we’ve seen so far isn’t particularly impressive,” says Gillett. “These aren’t household brands, or names that people are familiar with.”

And even if they were, the range of options still leaves something to be desired. There are various lighting kits and smart bridges from a single manufacturer, Lutron, while Elgato offers four variations on its Eve home sensors. That’s not to say that these products aren’t perfectly capable. But after a year, you’d understandably expect to see a little more traction.

What that doesn’t mean, though, is that HomeKit is in any sort of trouble, or even behind in anyway; remember that Google only just announced its latest smart home platform, Brillo, at its I/O developers conference last week. Remember, too, that Apple is playing a particularly long game, and in many ways, making up the rules as it goes.

“Frankly it’s hard,” explains Gillett. “You’re creating whole new ideas and ways that things work together … Add that we’re talking about action in the physical world, so there’s whole other layer of security and new scenarios to figure out.”

Better to get it right the first time, too, than to suffer through the sort of reputation-busting gaffe that forced Nest to recall over 400,000 smoke alarms last year.

Gillett expects that we’ll see more HomeKit announcements at WWDC, including new products. Getting third-party manufacturers on board eventually shouldn’t be much of an issue, either; Apple simply has too broad a customer base to ignore. Besides, credible rumors from last summer suggested Cupertino is at least considering making on its own home products as well.

But it certainly doesn’t have to.

The Plan

There are a few reasons a slow rollout for HomeKit shouldn’t be much of a concern. First is that WWDC may accelerate things rapidly. Even if it doesn’t, though, even if we just get an incremental update on a handful of features, Apple already has built a system that’s primed for success.

“Apple’s creating, essentially, a hardware extension of the App Store,” says Gillett. You could call it the ‘Appcessory Store,’ the smart home accessory store.” Seeing a product on the Apple Store shelf—or anywhere online—with a “Works with Apple HomeKit” label carries the same level of built-in trust as the App Store insignia.

That build-as-you-go approach also makes more sense for consumers. The idea of a “smart home” is a bit of a misnomer; as Gillett notes, what we’ll be doing for the next several years is retrofitting our homes piece by piece, depending upon our resources and needs. If it works with the smartphone we already own, all the better.

There’s serious competition on the way, of course. But Google’s already a year behind, Amazon so far only offers a hub hidden within a monolithic Bluetooth speaker, and upstarts like Wink see HomeKit as an opportunity more than a rival; by making its hardware HomeKit-compatible, it gains instant access to millions more potential customers.

We won’t know who won the smart home race for a few more years at least. But for now we can at least say that Apple’s charted itself a promising course; we’ll find out soon just how far along it’s gotten.


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