Opinion: Why Apple needs a dedicated HomeKit app

Over the past several months, we’ve had the opportunity to look at a variety of HomeKit accessories and apps from different vendors, and even shared some of our experiences on Life with HomeKit. In short, we continue to feel that Apple’s nascent home automation ecosystem is a winner in terms of its potential, despite its continued growing pains.

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Unfortunately, while the HomeKit accessories we’ve seen have been reasonably priced and solid performers, in most cases we’ve found that we can’t say the same for the apps which have accompanied them; the latter have ranged from pretty good to mediocre at best, with most falling toward the lower end of that scale. In fact, of all of the HomeKit apps we’ve seen, Elgato’s Eve app is the only one that we would consider worthy of regular use, and it remains our choice to control all of our HomeKit accessories from multiple vendors — in fact it’s telling that another vendor (Philips) — actually recommended using Elgato’s app specifically in their guides for setting up HomeKit to work with Hue lighting, since the Hue app by itself doesn’t even provide native HomeKit support or control.
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In a world of disparate HomeKit apps, many of which only provide limited support for all of the features Apple is promoting through HomeKit, an Apple-authored HomeKit app seems conspicuous by its absence. Rumors last spring suggested Apple was working on a HomeKit app in iOS 9 — with sources saying a fairly basic version of the app was being used internally at Apple — but it has yet to materialize for public consumption in any form, suggesting that it may have only been for internal HomeKit development and never intended to see the light of day. For a company that is usually so meticulous about controlling the user experience, it seems particularly odd that Apple would leave so much of HomeKit’s user interactions in the hands of third-party developers — many of whom are great hardware makers but not necessarily skilled at application development. While HomeKit works well enough through these apps, and of course Apple’s own Siri interface, we’re not really sure that any of them are presenting HomeKit to the average user in a way that’s as obvious or intuitive as an Apple-designed app could accomplish.

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To be clear, because HomeKit is an underlying system provided by Apple, most of the features that third-party apps provide are really just a core part of iOS. In this case, the third-party apps aren’t doing anything other than interfacing with the “HomeKit” frameworks to add and control devices, setup rooms, zones, service groups, and scenes, and configure time- and location-based triggers. This is why most HomeKit apps can “see” your entire HomeKit infrastructure, even if they weren’t used to configure it in the first place, and why time and location-based triggers don’t require the configuring app to be running, or even installed for that matter. In other words, you could install Incipio’s CommandKit app, use it to setup some location-based triggers, subsequently delete it from your iOS device entirely, and the location triggers would still run — they’re stored in the core HomeKit system, not within any particular app.

In fact, seemingly the only HomeKit feature required by a vendor-specific HomeKit app is for adding that specific vendor’s devices to your HomeKit system. Elgato’s Eve app will only discover and add devices made by Elgato, and likewise for iHome, iDevices, Incipio, and all of the rest. Once added, however, a device can be controlled from any HomeKit app which supports that class of device.

Update: As Elgato points out in the comments at the end of this article, the Eve app is capable of adding non-Elgato HomeKit devices to a user’s HomeKit configuration — providing the devices have already been joined to a user’s Wi-Fi network or paired to the iOS device via Bluetooth manually using the iOS Settings app. Elgato has likely done everything they can here within Apple’s limitations, but for most HomeKit accessories we’ve looked at this still requires a multi-stage process that most users aren’t going to want to bother with, and essentially goes against Apple’s implied goal of making the HomeKit setup process as seamless as possible.

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This is where things get murkier, however. The problem is that not all HomeKit apps support all classes of devices. Why should they, after all? What incentive is there for one vendor to develop an app that will easily control products from their competitors? This isn’t even deliberate in our opinion, but simply the nature of business — all companies have a limited amount of time and effort to put into their products, and most hardware vendors aren’t expert app developers in the first place. It takes enough time just to get an app working with their own devices, so trying to support another vendor’s devices isn’t justifiable, Sometimes, of course, it’s already going to be baked in due to the nature of the devices in question — an app from a vendor that makes smart outlets, for example, will likely support HomeKit-configured smart outlets from other vendors automatically, as they’re all the same “class” of device. Less ubiquitous devices like thermostats, sensors, and door locks, however, are more likely to require their own vendor’s HomeKit apps to control them.

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Another wrinkle is that a great many of the HomeKit devices we’ve seen offer capabilities beyond what HomeKit is able to provide. For example, while Elgato’s Eve Sensors can monitor temperature and humidity — both available through the HomeKit frameworks — they also offer air quality and air pressure monitoring. Similarly, smart outlets from iDevices, Elgato, and Incipio all provide power consumption monitoring, but again HomeKit has no idea what to do with that information. In all of these cases, the information that HomeKit doesn’t know about can only be accessed through each of these vendor’s own proprietary app’s methods, leaving users somewhat confused about which features are part of HomeKit and which ones aren’t. The only solution for this problem is for Apple to expand HomeKit to accept more forms of input, in much the same way that the company has gradually increased the amount of data its HealthKit frameworks can record and track in its Health app.

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All of this ultimately leaves us in a semi-proprietary world where Apple has gone part of the way to bringing home automation accessories together, but doesn’t really seem to have completed the journey (yet). While we’re certain Apple is directing things on the back-end through its MFi program and enforcement of its APIs, the company has clearly done little in terms of any developer guidelines on how HomeKit apps should be built, particularly in regard to the user interfaces. While it’s great that HomeKit accessories can be viewed and controlled in scenes across multiple apps, the user interface to do this is confusing and inconsistent, based as it is on the design philosophies of individual hardware vendors. Further, users are required to juggle multiple apps to set things up that should really be available from a single, unified interface — open up five different HomeKit apps, and you’ll see five completely different interfaces and ideas about how a home automation app should look. Beyond back-end organization and Siri voice control, we’re left with the feeling like there’s been no direction toward the HomeKit user experience — a huge irony coming from a company that is normally obsessive about user interactions.

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It’s hard to imagine Apple doing this with any other app in its iOS pantheon. Despite the popularity of third-party alternatives for things like Mail, Calendar, and Contacts, Apple still provides a core user experience in its own app — by both delivering something that most average users will enjoy, and in leading by example, as the company envisions how these apps should work. Yet with HomeKit, there’s no “vision” of how a HomeKit app should work, so we’re left with conflicting ideas and conflicting designs, and a collection of apps that don’t even properly embrace the entire HomeKit world. A core HomeKit app, developed by Apple, could provide an obvious roadmap for what HomeKit is supposed to do from Apple’s own perspective, both for developers and especially for end users, providing a baseline for third-party apps to actually improve upon, rather than simply providing the bare minimum required to allow Siri voice control of their own otherwise-proprietary accessories.

If HomeKit is truly going to succeed, Apple needs to build its own HomeKit app to show the rest of the world how it’s supposed to be done, and give users true choice to select the HomeKit accessories that will meet their needs, rather than still feeling partially locked into a single vendor’s ecosystem because of the pros and cons of the various third-party HomeKit apps. News about HomeKit developments within Apple have been strangely quiet as of late, but we’re hoping that as we move toward WWDC 2016 and the next generation of iOS, we’ll see some more movement on this front. As we observed before, Apple has a long established habit of starting with the basics and iterating slowly, so maybe a proper HomeKit app is already in the company’s long-term plans. We certainly hope so.