Apple’s not the only company in the home automation game…
Home automation is in its infancy and so a perfectly viable alternative to HomeKit at this stage is to avoid complex setups entirely, and instead concentrate on a few individual pieces of technology you think will improve your life right now. For example, while the Withings Home and Philips Hue will both eventually be able to nestle into a HomeKit setup, they work perfectly well as they are. Plonk a Withings Home in a room and it’ll send live video and imagery to an iPhone, along with alerting you regarding movement – it’ll even send these things to an Apple Watch. Likewise, the Philips Hue has long been a MacFormat favourite, with its iOS app providing an elegant and simple means of remotely controlling home lighting.
However, the more devices and gadgets you accumulate, the more you’re going to want to make them work as one, and there are plenty of competing protocols and standards. Z-Wave and ZigBee are two popular communications protocols that can be used in home automation kit. The former’s website talks of leading brands being powered by it. The latter calls itself the “only open, global wireless standard to provide the foundation for the Internet of Things”.
Really, though, protocols are only part of the puzzle. What makes HomeKit isn’t the protocol itself, but the fact it’s part of an Apple ecosystem. As a consumer armed with an iPhone, you’ll just grab a piece of MFi-certified kit, knowing it should work with your home set-up. The two names most likely to take on Apple in that sense are Samsung and Google. Samsung has made major inroads into home automation over the past couple of years, integrating it into the company’s products. This was further cemented by a 2014 acquisition of SmartThings (smartthings.com), a US-based company building an open platform for smart homes. Through the SmartThings Hub and free app (iOS, Android and Windows), you can add and use whatever devices you want, customising your smart home.
Google, too, looks set to battle Apple for the future of home automation. While its Android @ Home system seemingly stalled, the company bought the popular Nest smart thermostat. Nest has since branched out into related products and a ‘Work with Nest’ program. This enables smart accessories to work with Nest in all kinds of ways, including toggling lights when the thermostat is in ‘away’ mode during your holidays, and flashing Hue lights to get your attention when a Nest Protect smoke alarm senses something’s wrong.
Late last year, Nest formed a working group with Samsung and several other companies to release Thread (threadgroup.org), which it describes as “the very best way to connect and control products in the home”. It’s promoted as secure and without a single point of failure, along with essentially solving every problem, ever, for connecting products around the home.
At this point, your head might hurt from all the choice and it is impossible to know how everything will shake out. Google in particular seems well placed to take on HomeKit, not least with its rapidly improving software design smarts and ownership of Nest. Samsung, too, is an industry giant that also manufactures televisions and a huge range of home appliances.
However, Apple has advantages of its own. It’s taken the time to get HomeKit right, boasts superb brand recognition and satisfaction, and also has a history of creating ecosystems in which third-parties can flourish.
We’d say the future of home automation is fluid. If you simply cannot wait for a gadget, by all means buy it now if it’ll happily work with your existing iOS devices. Otherwise, hang on for HomeKit proper if you’re wedded to Apple, or investigate alternatives (notably SmartThings) if you’ve a very mixed-use household in terms of smartphones and accessories.
US-based SmartThings was acquired by Samsung and provides an open platform which does a lot of what Apple’s aiming for with its HomeKit system.
The existing Hue system from Philips, before any HomeKit integration, provides an excellent way of smart-controlling the lighting in your home through the iPhone app.