The state of the Ap­ple HomeKit mar­ket

There’s plenty of po­ten­tial for Ap­ple’s smart home sys­tem, though it lags be­hind the com­pe­ti­tion, writes Glenn Fleish­man

Macworld - - CONTENTS -

Ap­ple an­nounced its smart home con­trol sys­tem, HomeKit, in 2014 at its an­nual de­vel­op­ers con­fer­ence. It started en­abling it in iOS in mid-2015 and had a more com­plete roll­out later that year. With iOS 10, HomeKit fi­nally got its own app and bet­ter in­te­gra­tion.

But it re­mains an im­ma­ture tech­nol­ogy with few choices even for diehard Ap­ple equip­ment own­ers.

This was em­pha­sized at this year’s CES, a trade show at which Ap­ple never ex­hibits, but where prod­ucts from third par­ties aimed at the ecosys­tem of­ten get their de­but. For HomeKit, it was mostly crick­ets. Ama­zon’s Alexa ruled the roost, with a large num­ber of in­te­gra­tions with third par­ties, ex­tend­ing its voice-con­trolled sys­tem.

This is cer­tainly part of a larger sense of malaise across all smart home sys­tems. While the prom­ise re­mains im­mense, mul­ti­ple com­pet­ing, in­com­pat­i­ble ecosys­tems that in­clude a lot of prod­ucts from startup com­pa­nies seem to have stalled a lot of in­no­va­tion and even re­duc­tions in cost.

Imag­ine if in­stead of Wi-Fi, we had three sep­a­rate high-speed lo­cal area wire­less net­work­ing stan­dards, and had to ei­ther set up a sep­a­rate router for each and use don­gles, or buy into an ap­proach that

wouldn’t work ev­ery­where when we left the house. In that con­text, how­ever, HomeKit still re­mains be­hind. While HomeKit is built into iOS and the fourth­gen­er­a­tion Ap­ple TV, which can act as a hub of sorts, macOS doesn’t in­clude it. And third par­ties are mak­ing HomeKit-en­abled hard­ware, but not enough and in enough va­ri­ety that if you’re look­ing to equip your home with a sin­gle sys­tem, you have enough choices.

This snap­shot of the mar­ket will cer­tainly change, but the lack of prod­uct an­nounce­ments at CES means the like­li­hood is low through much of 2017 for es­tab­lished com­pa­nies and well-funded newer firms to add sig­nif­i­cant HomeKit op­tions.

Smart home ba­sics

In case you’re not tuned in to the pur­pose of smart home de­vices, con­trols, and ecosys­tems, here’s a brief primer and where Ap­ple’s HomeKit fits into things. Smart home de­vices are a sub­set of the In­ter­net of Things (IoT): net­work-con­nected equip­ment that can be used over a lo­cal net­work and ac­cessed re­motely via the in­ter­net. Some smart home gear is also con­nected to the cloud. Hav­ing very lit­tle com­pu­ta­tional in­tel­li­gence of its own, these de­vices rely on in­ter­net-con­nected servers for cues or con­trol.

A range of ex­ist­ing home de­vices can be made smart: ther­mostats, alarm sys­tems, fridges, wash­ing ma­chines, cof­fee mak­ers, and much more. Some of these have been semi-in­tel­li­gent in the past, with pro­gram­ming op­tions or quirky re­mote ac­cess via smart­phone or na­tive apps, or only ac­ces­si­ble through low-power, short-range net­work­ing when you’re within

close prox­im­ity. (If you used or use X10 con­trollers, which date to the 1970s, you may have ex­pe­ri­enced more prim­i­tive ver­sions of this, as X10 re­lied on home elec­tri­cal wiring as its pri­mary back­bone, even af­ter adding wire­less bridges.)

The smart home prom­ise is to bring in­tel­li­gence to ‘dumb’ gear for rea­sons of con­ve­nience, en­ergy ef­fi­ciency, safety, and even fun. Light­ing is the main ex­am­ple: few peo­ple wired-in in­tel­li­gent light­ing con­trols in homes prior to the de­vel­op­ment of net­work-con­nected light switches and bulbs. Nor would most peo­ple con­sider be­ing able to un­lock their front door re­motely an im­por­tant fea­ture, or hav­ing re­mote­con­trolled blinds. These would have been largely ex­pen­sive and cus­tom in­stal­la­tions. Smart home prod­ucts aren’t cheap, but they’re of­ten amenable to user in­stal­la­tion and are nowhere as ex­pen­sive as the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion of au­to­mated goods.

The goal of a smart home is to take hun­dreds of small de­ci­sions and be­hav­iours and wrap them up so you can trig­ger them based on time, pres­ence (judg­ing via sen­sors or smart­phone prox­im­ity), or pat­terns. So you might set what Ap­ple calls a ‘scene’ that you use for your whole fam­ily be­ing home in the evening. An­other scene might power up a home-en­ter­tain­ment sys­tem, dim the lights, lower the blinds, and even roll down a screen or re­tract a cov­er­ing.

Un­like some other com­puter and per­sonal elec­tron­ics stan­dards for de­vice com­mu­ni­ca­tion, no sin­gle in­dus­try group emerged to bring all the dis­parate man­u­fac­tur­ers into one flex­i­ble stan­dard, as with Wi-Fi, USB, Blue­tooth, and oth­ers. As a re­sult, you can

find dozens of pro­to­cols that work at var­i­ous lev­els of net­work­ing func­tion (see above).

Smart home ecosys­tems are typ­i­cally built on ex­ist­ing net­work­ing stan­dards, pro­vid­ing com­pat­i­bil­ity at that level at least. This can in­clude the well-known Wi-Fi and Blue­tooth, but also ones you are un­likely to have heard of if you haven’t al­ready in­stalled gear, such as Thread, ZigBee and Z-Wave.

Why not just use Blue­tooth and Wi-Fi-en­abled IoT smart home de­vices, some of which have been around out for years? Be­cause those typ­i­cally re­quire buy­ing all your equip­ment from a sin­gle com­pany, and re­ly­ing on it to ad­vance hard­ware and soft­ware on its own. These newer ecosys­tems may have a sin­gle firm dom­i­nat­ing them, like Ap­ple or Google, but ul­ti­mately hun­dreds or thou­sands of com­pa­nies will make prod­ucts that work with them, al­though some com­pa­nies may have to make mul­ti­ple ver­sions.

And a co­a­lesc­ing of ap­proaches has started to hap­pen, which will de­crease in­com­pat­i­bil­ity and re­duce your need to buy in to one sys­tem. The re­cently formed Open Con­nec­tiv­ity Foun­da­tion comes out of a merger of groups backed sep­a­rately by chip­maker Qual­comm and CPU giant In­tel. As IDG News Ser­vice cor­re­spon­dent Stephen Law­son wrote af­ter the 2017 CES, how­ever, it will likely be one to three years be­fore the in­dus­try be­gins to co­a­lesce around a few stan­dards that pro­vide bet­ter in­ter­op­er­abil­ity.

You may have read some of the cov­er­age in late 2016 about IoT bot­nets, which are smart de­vices that have had their soft­ware and ca­pa­bil­i­ties hi­jacked, usu­ally un­de­tected by their own­ers, and which are

then used to launch dis­trib­uted de­nial of ser­vice (DDoS) at­tacks against tar­gets for fi­nan­cial or po­lit­i­cal rea­sons. The IoT de­vices iden­ti­fied as the big­gest prob­lem are typ­i­cally one-off hard­ware that aren’t part of any ecosys­tem, and are typ­i­cally sold in­ex­pen­sively by low-end man­u­fac­tur­ers.

Hard­ware that is cer­ti­fied for one of the ma­jor smarthome sys­tems, like HomeKit, must demon­strate that it ad­heres to en­cryp­tion and other stan­dards. Ap­ple is par­tic­u­larly rig­or­ous on this front, in­clud­ing dis­abling re­mote ac­cess to HomeKit ac­ces­sories by de­fault. This may ex­plain why HomeKit hard­ware has been slower to come to mar­ket, too, but it’s a good prob­lem.

HomeKit stands alone, but the Home app stands out

It’s in this frame­work that Ap­ple re­mains an is­land with HomeKit, its own stan­dard that it li­censes to other par­ties, but which doesn’t in­ter­op­er­ate on its own with any other top-level stan­dard, like Thread, a stan­dard deeply sup­ported by Al­pha­bet’s Nest.

HomeKit orig­i­nally re­quired us­ing var­i­ous smart­phone apps and ben­e­fited from a third-party HomeKit hub to pull to­gether con­nected ac­tions. But Ap­ple added a ded­i­cated app, called Home, start­ing in iOS 10 and watchOS 2, which rad­i­cally sim­pli­fies con­trol­ling HomeKit-equipped hard­ware. Home con­trols ap­pear in iOS’s Con­trol Cen­ter.

The clos­est com­par­i­son to the Home app for cen­tral con­trol in other ecosys­tems is Google Home, an Ama­zon Echo-like de­vice that con­nects to Nest and other sup­ported hard­ware, and Sam­sung’s

SmartThings, which works with sev­eral kinds of smarthome pro­to­cols, but not HomeKit. SmartThings has an An­droid and iOS app, and re­quires its own hub. Ama­zon, mean­while, is mak­ing fast progress when it comes to ex­pand­ing the uni­verse of smart de­vices that its Alexa dig­i­tal as­sis­tant can con­trol.

Af­ter in­stalling and con­fig­ur­ing a HomeKit de­vice via its iOS app, it’s avail­able in Home and can be in­di­vid­u­ally con­trolled (by tap or with Siri), as well as part of timed, man­ual, and trig­gered events. (HomeKit sup­port on iOS de­vices re­quires at least iOS 8.1; the Home app comes with iOS 10.)

Man­ual con­trol works with­out a hub, but if you want to sched­ule events, set up user per­mis­sions to for spe­cific hard­ware, and re­motely con­trol HomeKit de­vices, you’ll need one.

Re­mote con­trol, in­clud­ing us­ing Siri on an iPhone or iPad, re­quires ei­ther a third- or fourth-gen­er­a­tion Ap­ple TV, which must be logged into the same iCloud ac­count. For timed ac­tions and user per­mis­sions, you must have a fourth-gen­er­a­tion Ap­ple TV run­ning tvOS 10 or an iPad with iOS 10 on your net­work. Many peo­ple seem to have iPads that rou­tinely stay at home, mak­ing this lat­ter op­tion a rea­son­able choice for them.

In the Home app, all avail­able de­vices ap­pear and can be as­signed to lo­ca­tions, like rooms, and to scenes, which are col­lec­tions of ac­ces­sories paired with a state they should switch to, such as the light­ing and tem­per­a­ture you’d like to trig­ger when you wake up and say “good morn­ing” or at a cer­tain time of the day. With a hub, you can share ac­cess to HomeKit de­vices you’ve au­then­ti­cated to your ac­count, al­low­ing oth­ers to use

A map of the mas­sive DDoS at­tack that oc­curred in Oc­to­ber 2016 and the in­ter­net out­ages in­volved

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