Smart Homes are one of the hottest areas in technology at the moment, and with its HomeKit developer framework Apple is hoping to set a standard that will make controlling devices and services around the house as simple as turning on a light switch. As yet the automated home shows tremendous potential but remains a disconnected and nebulous experience due to the variety of proprietary apps that manufacturers employ. It was clear from this year's WWDC keynote speech that Apple is intending to make this space its own by having a single, unified iPhone interface that will control all elements of your digital dwelling with the elegance and clarity that we’ve come to expect from Cupertino’s finest.
The picture above shows the Home Kit Accessory Simulator that developers will use to design their integrated systems
What is a 'Smart Home'
Until quite recently the idea of a Smart Home was something we might have aspired to if and when we became rich and famous. It was all about tricking out our homes with fridges that would order food directly from the supermarket and self closing curtains.
These days more and more people have smart devices at home that they control from their smartphones. Perhaps your thermostat with an accompanying app so you can turn it off when you aren’t at home, or maybe your thermostat is intelligent enough to know what temperature it should be at based on your usual needs. You might have a security system that you manage from your iPhone, a automated pet feeder, or a gadget to turn lights on and off.
As we wrote in our article about the Internet of Things, these devices and apps are going to become a big deal over the next few years. One reason why they are becoming more available is the rapidly falling prices of the technology, which means becoming easier and cheaper to equip objects with sensors and microchips. In a few years from now your bin might tell the council when it is full, and the tires on your car will tell you they need inflating.
Why Home Automation needs Apple and Apple needs Smart Homes
Home automation could benefit from Apple’s track record of taking a technology and making it user friendly and mainstream.
At the moment those with smart gadgets in their home likely have a number of separate apps on their phones and computers for controlling them. Apple would integrate everything into one solution and tie all of it together with one app that runs on iPhones, iPads, Apple TV and Macs.
Another reason why Apple is well placed in this market is the fact that the ‘early adopter’ types with money to spend who may well be considering tricking out their homes are likely to already own Apple devices.
It’s also a concept that hits home for Apple. Apple’s been there before - it pioneered the idea of a home hub. Back in a 2001 keynote address at the Macworld conference, Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduced the vision of a home hub with the Mac serving as the household's central controller of entertainment and productivity. This could be the natural evolution of that concept.
Plus Apple’s already made moves to integrate iOS with automotive information and entertainment systems in CarPlay, so why not do the same thing in the home.
Another example of the Home Kit simulator used by developers
What devices will work with Apple’s Smart Home system
As far as we know Apple isn’t about to launch its own smart home gadgets but it will allow third-parties to make products that work with its system. According to an FT report that appeared before the WWDC announcement, Apple has been in talks with manufacturers about certifying their products under a system similar to "Made for iPhone” (which manufacturers need to join in order to sell their products in the Apple Stores and use various Apple technologies).
This means that, as long as your lights or alarms are made by an Apple-approved device maker you will be able to use Apple’s system to control them. Apple will then sell these products in its High Street stores.
The products could include Philips' popular Hue series of light bulbs, which can change colour and have their brightness controlled via the existing iOS app. This would seem a likely candidate to transition to the HomeKit platform. Then there’s the Kevo automated door lock that can be opened by having your iPhone in close proximity. Nest’s electronic thermostat has been a big success already, and lends itself nicely to the automated nature of HomeKit. Other possibilities include baby monitors, garage doors, media systems and no doubt more will become known as the release of iOS 8 draws closer in the Autumn.
The Nest Thermostat
The lighting control app from Philips
The August electronic lock
Who is Apple working with?
Apple has already announced partnerships with a number of manufacturers leading the way in home automation. These include Philips, Withings, netatmo, Kwikset, Chamberlain, and several others, many of whom already sell products in the Apple store.
How will it work?
Although we haven’t seen HomeKit in action yet, the way Apple describes it gives the distinct impression that it is to be a central point that draws together all the disparate apps that currently make up an automated home. At WWDC Craig Federighi explained that "there are a lot of great home automation devices coming on the market these days, and they have companion apps - things like lights and door locks, webcams, garage doors, and thermostats. But, you know, each of them have their own application, and they end up defining their own network protocol, their own security mechanisms. Well, we thought we could bring some rationality to this space."
HomeKit, then, is a common network protocol that these devices can employ, so the user need only open one app to control them all. This could be a generic setting for the whole home, say changing the thermostat to a certain temperature, or individual room settings, which might be as simple as turning off the lights in the bedroom. There’s also a feature where you can create zones that include different rooms, so in one command you could lock all of the doors on the ground floor. With this kind of control over a home there are obviously security concerns, which Apple addressed when it confirmed that HomeKit would include secure pairing, so only a specific iPhone could open your door or issue other commands.
Picture shows: The key features of HomeKit summarised at WWDC
How will HomeKit work with Siri for voice commands?
Siri seems firmly integrated with HomeKit, allowing users to use simple commands to complete regular tasks. At WWDC Craig Federighi used the example of how the zone system could be mixed with Siri to achieve impressive results.
"With HomeKit you can group devices and changes into scenes," he explained, "and then with Siri integration you can say something like 'Get ready for bed' and be assured that your garage door is closed, your door is locked, the thermostat is lowered, and your lights are dimmed. That’s HomeKit."
Why will HomeKit be better than current Home Automation solutions?
Simplicity. Home automation is meant to make life easier, but if you have to juggle ten different apps to get something done then the chances are you’ll be quicker if you just nip around the house do it manually. It will also bring a uniformity to the interface, so the user will know how it works straight away, rather than having to learn a new layout each time they buy a device.
Why does Apple want to get in to Home Automation?
Technology Business Research analyst Ezra Gottheil thinks Apple’s interest in the Smart Home is: "Absolutely to sell more iOS devices."
He added: “Having new and interesting things in the store helps bring in traffic. And that means more sales of its own hardware.”
It’s more than that though. This is a market that is set to grow exponentially over the next few years. The installer market is worth billions, and the DIY market is also increasing. It’s the next big thing.
What is Google Nearby? And is it a HomeKit Killer?
Apple won’t have the playing field all to itself in home automation, as Google has already made significant investments in this area. At the start of the year the search giant bought Nest for around $3.2 billion. This company, headed up by Tony Fadell who famously came up with the initial design for the iPod and led the development of the iPhone, has garnered much praise for its award winning electronic thermostat, which can be controlled via your smartphone. With Fadell involved we would expect to see significant developments in this area of Google’s range.
Rumours also began circulating recently about Google Nearby, a service that allows devices to communicate with each other based on proximity. While the potential for this is still unknown we’ve already seen the Android feature that means a Chromebook will unlock if it detects your phone nearby. This could possibly be extended to work with doors, lights, or even media systems so you can arrive home to your favourite music already playing. How it will match up to HomeKit is still unclear, as neither system has been fully released, but Google has been aggressive in its expansion into the areas of wearables, TV, and in-car systems recently, so it would seem highly likely that a fully fledged home automation platform will appear before too long. Then it will most likely come down to which manufacturing partnerships the two companies can forge, with exclusives being all important.