It’s was back in June 2014 when Apple announced its Smart Home platform ‘HomeKit’, and we’re still waiting for the first fruits of this potentially groundbreaking home automation system to appear. Rumours have begun to surface recently though that manufacturers are gearing up to release various products in early 2015 that will utilize HomeKit. So the curtains could soon be drawn back on the digitally enhanced home of the future. Before long you may be controlling various elements of your house remotely from the comfort of your iPhone 7.
The picture above shows the Home Kit Accessory Simulator that developers will use to design their integrated systems.
What is HomeKit: What is a Smart Home?
The idea of an intelligent home has been around for decades. Back in the 1950s visitors to Disneyland could tour a conceptual ‘Home of the Future’ in all its plastic-infused splendor. But whereas that dwelling centered on disappearing shelves and storing irradiated food (well, it was the fifties), there was of course a complete lack of electronic interfaces for the modern household.
Until quite recently Smart Homes were something we might have aspired to if and when we became wealthy. It was all about tricking out our homes with elaborate, voice controlled computers, automated mood lighting, and self-closing curtains.
These days more and more people have smart devices in their home that can be controlled via smartphones. From thermostats that are intelligent enough to know what temperature it should be, based on your usual needs, to security systems that send alarms to your iPhone along with images of potential burglars.
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, and Apple’s Homekit system looks set to be a significant player. One reason home automation devices are becoming more available is the rapidly falling prices of the technology, which means its 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 let you know they need inflating.
What is HomeKit: 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.
Privacy and security are also both huge factors when dealing with homes. Apple recently announced new rules to its potential Homekit partners, stating that any sort of information gathering for advertising or data mining would be strictly forbidden. Even the devices themselves must include WiFi and Bluetooth chips from specific manufacturers, presumably so that Apple can monitor the kind of products being created for its Homekit customers.
Another reason why Apple is well placed in this market is that the ‘early adopter’ types with money to spend are likely to already own Apple devices. It’s also a concept that hits home for Apple. The California giant has been there before, when 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. Then there’s the fact that Apple’s have 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 is HomeKit: When will devices be available?
While Apple has yet to officially launch the HomeKit platform, things seem to be gathering pace. In a recent Forbes interview it was confirmed that Broadcom, one of the three companies allowed to distribute HomeKit compatible microchips, has begun shipping the initial batches to device manufacturers.
“Everyone’s getting ready,” said Brian Bedrosian, senior director of embedded wireless in the mobile and wireless group at Broadcom. “Expect to see new product launches in the next cycle of product releases.”
These chips will feature the HomeKit firmware, giving manufacturers a chance to test and finesse their devices before release to the public. In fact Elgato has already announced HomeKit compatible home automation devices with its new Eve range. These upcoming products will include sensors that measure energy and water consumption, room temperatures, air quality, and humidity. Release dates are still being withheld but a reasonable assumption is that we’ll see the arrival of HomeKit products at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) which takes place in January 2015.
Further evidence that HomeKit is about to become a reality was revealed at the Made for iPhone/iPad (MFI) Summit in Shenzhen, China last month when Apple confirmed to the attending accessory manufacturers that it would now accept plans for HomeKit related products. This is something usually done in the latter stages of a product development cycle, and would be a strong indicator that Apple is finalising its plans for rolling out the platform.
So with the WiFi and Bluetooth chips already in the hands of device makers, and Apple now ready to approve their creations, it looks clear that our waiting may finally be over.
What is HomeKit: 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 will allow third-parties to make HomeKit compatible products if they sign up to its Made for iPhone (MFi) programme. 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. In fact a quick perusal of the online store reveals that there are already several automated home items available that will presumably be upgraded to HomeKit once the system is officially launched.
These products could include Philips' popular Hue series of light bulbs, which can change colour and have their brightness controlled via the existing iOS app. 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 whatever bright ideas developers come up with in the coming months.
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.
Here's a round up of HomeKit products that have already launched, or are coming soon: Remote control HomeKit products round up
What is HomeKit: 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
What is HomeKit: 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."
What is 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.
What is HomeKit: 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 HomeKit: 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 2014 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 have also been circulating 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.