HomeKit is where the dearth is – no one wants Apple's IoT tech
Is anyone buying it – figuratively or literally?
It's been four months since Apple half-launched its smart-home/internet-of-things service through the introduction of a new app in iOS 10 called "Home."
At the time, we asked "where are the products?" and unfortunately it's a question we're still asking in the lead-up to what should be a holiday push for the smart home.
One of the few companies to get on board with Apple's approach – in which you are required not only to register with the iPhone maker as a manufacturer but also use an Apple specified-chip and firmware – has been smart thermostat company Ecobee.
This week, Ecobee launched a cut-down version of its main product, the Ecobee Lite, leaving out room sensors and motion detection to bring the price down from $249 to $169. But nowhere in its marketing materials is Apple's HomeKit mentioned, despite the extra effort and cost the company has to go to in order to work with the system.
Under the tech specs, it doesn't even merit its own line, being bunched in with Amazon's Echo with the phrase: "Apple HomeKit and Amazon Echo Integration." This is not normal for any product that has jumped through Apple's hoops and goes to every length to stick an official Apple sticker on everything.
The problem is that Apple is trying to do what it always does – control everything. It's our way or the highway. Except the Internet of Things is not the same as the computer or mobile phone market: Apple needs other companies more than they need it.
"HomeKit collides with the rest of the industry," Ed Hemphill, the CEO of WigWag, told us. WigWag is developing an open-source hub to work with just about every IoT and smart home device out there. Except Apple.
"Their approach is just onerous and unnecessary," says Hemphill, referring to the need to include an Apple chip and go through its certification program. The upside of this is that Apple can set a high bar in terms of features, communications protocol support, and device security. The downside is that you have to use components provided by Apple.
"And it's not compatible with Thread or ZigBee or Z-Wave," Hemphill adds. But even more damningly, he says that literally none of his customers are asking about it.
And that's because right now, you can go buy products that work and are cheap and don't need HomeKit. All the big names on Apple's list of certified products – from Ecobee and Honeywell thermostats to August and Schlage door locks – work perfectly well without HomeKit.
And they will all work with the larger IoT ecosystem once the industry figures out how to start working with one another.
There are some compelling reasons for people to go the route of HomeKit and pull themselves into the Apple ecosystem. Or, at least, they were reasons. One is security. The whole reason Apple made the extraordinary decision to insist companies put its approved microcontroller inside their products was because, the company said, it was concerned about security.
Security was, and remains, a top concern when it comes to IoT. And for good reason. The appalling lack of attention paid to software defenses in IoT products has been demonstrated again and again. With Apple's system, it has everything locked down.
But that concern is being rapidly addressed by the market. Google just launched a range of hardware aimed squarely at the smart-home market and it is working to massively increase standard security in products. Thread will also help with that.
WigWag too is building new security features into its hub, and it is relying on the open-source community to scour code and fix bugs (hopefully better than it fared with OpenSSL and Bash). The Apple security advantage will likely be gone in 2017. It has two years to make the most of it and has simply not done so.
One other big advantage to HomeKit is ease-of-use. Connecting new devices is fast, easy and secure. Other IoT devices often require slightly elaborate setup processes – connecting to your phone, then your phone handing off to your Wi-Fi. HomeKit requires a simple punch-in code and you're done.
Except that advantage too is disappearing. Again, Google and WigWag now enable simple one-step setups. They're not the only ones.
And lastly, HomeKit comes with Apple's trademark design and user interface pedigree and lets you run everything through a single app. Most smart home, IoT products come with their own app and the software varies wildly. Some apps are slow, clunky and prone to crashing. And of course they all have their own interface that you need to navigate.
But this advantage is also under attack. As the market figures out how to start interacting with one another, the emergence of high-quality full-control apps is inevitable. And when they do, likely next year, they will be but a 30-second download away.
Even more significantly, however, is the emergence of Amazon Echo and now Google Home. Every IoT manufacturer is racing to include voice control into their system; all the big ones already have.
Apps themselves are increasingly becoming second choice when it comes to controlling smart home tech. Why whip out your phone and open an app when you can just call out to your digital assistant?
And here's the thing: neither the Amazon Echo nor the Google Home will work with Apple's HomeKit. Apple has an uphill battle trying to impose the same constraints it put on iOS in the IoT market for the simple reason that IoT is first and foremost a hardware game. Without that physical thermostat, or lightbulb, or sensor, or power socket, or camera, or lock, the best software in the world can't do anything.
HomeKit has already missed its big window of opportunity. What Apple does next will decide whether it survives at all. ®