Why Apple gluing the smart home together with HomeKit isn't so dumb

As Apple unveils its latest smart home initiative, we look at how we could all soon be using our iPhones to bark instructions to our home.

While those expecting a raft of new Apple gadgets, such as the iWatch, may have been left disappointed, for fans of home automation there was much more to cheer about at the company’s WWDC (Worldwide Developer Conference) on Monday.

Unveiled at the conference was a smart home program, which will enable users to take control of appliances in their home using their Apple devices, including iPhones, iPods and iPads.

Called HomeKit, the program – which is designed to work with Apple’s latest iOS8 operating system – will integrate with a range of home automation products from other companies. Initial partners include Philips, which makes a connected light bulb called Hue, August, which manufactures a smart lock and Belkin with its range of WeMo smart outlets and switches.

But dozens more companies have also signed up to MFI (Made for iPhone, iPad) certification. One of the first products with MFI certification was the Haier’s Tianzun Air Conditioner, which was first unveiled at CES back in January. But others are sure to follow. Importantly MFI devices will come with a wireless chip that enables communication over a number of different protocols. Other brands that Apple is believed to be working with include Honeywell, Texas Instruments and Withings.

Total control

Whereas controlling devices in the home has typically required a touch screen control, the idea with HomeKit is that you will be able to use Apple’s Siri voice control system instead. So by talking into your iPhone or iPad you will be able to close your garage doors, switch the lights off or even lock the front door.

It will even be possible – though perhaps not initially – to control a number of devices just by one simple command, known as macro-programming in the home automation industry. For example, by voicing ‘Get Ready For Bed’ the lights will automatically dim, the heating will be turned off and the home locked.

Of course this level of home automation isn’t exactly new. Companies like Crestron and Lutron have been offering similar functionality with their own proprietary systems for some time – at a price, of course. But what Apple is attempting to do is bring all of these devices together under one roof – essentially bringing home automation to the mass market.

Rather than manufacturing the devices themselves, Apple sees itself as the conduit, providing the glue to stick them all together. It will also no doubt provide a whole heap of marketing muscle to a home automation industry notoriously fragmented by a mass of competing standards and confusing offerings.

As Apple’s Senior Vice President of Software Engineering Craig Federighi told a room of developers at the Worldwide Developers Conference: “There are great apps and devices on the market, but we thought we could bring some rationality to this.”

Talking cents

You have to say if it works it’s a pretty smart move on Apple’s part. While of course it’s nice to be able to wow friends by talking to your house and getting it to listen, Apple stands to benefit big time if its devices become the de facto standard for home automation.

Whereas you might ditch your Apple smart phone for an Android or even Windows device if you just use it to voice calls and data on the move, that decision comes much, much tougher if you are using it for controlling everything from the air conditioning unit to the home security. It’s a bit like companies such as Sky and BT which offer discounts encouraging you to sign up to a whole host of TV, phone and data services in the hope of making it difficult to shift to their competitors.

Of course it’s not just Apple that can see the potential of home automation for this very reason. Earlier this year Google announced its entry into home automation with the acquisition of Nest, a company that boasts an impressive smart thermostat and smoke detector. How much longer before Android devices too are positioned as the control hub for the smart home?


Chris Price