One of the big themes at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, both inside the iProducts Marketplace and elsewhere, was a collection of new home automation solutions. It seemed everywhere we turned yet another company was offering smart lightbulbs, door locks, or security and environmental sensors, making it clear that Apple picked the right time to get into this arena with its HomeKit platform. Announced as an iOS 8 feature at last year’s Worldwide Developers Conference, HomeKit promises to provide a unifying framework that will allow third-party home automation accessories to integrate smoothly and securely into the iOS ecosystem. That said, there’s been little concrete information about what HomeKit is actually going to do and how it’s going to work in practical purposes, and as usual Apple isn’t terribly forthcoming about the details outside of its closed-door meetings with select third-party accessory makers. With some of the very first HomeKit products showing up at CES, however, we were able to glean some insight from a number of HomeKit partners and other home automation accessory companies to get a general idea of where HomeKit is actually going.
1. Don’t expect a rush of new HomeKit-enabled products right out of the gate. While we saw dozens of home automation accessories from a wide variety of vendors at CES this year, only a total of three actually had working HomeKit products to show. Others we spoke to hadn’t been invited or accepted into the HomeKit program yet, or were simply “working on it.” Much like Apple has done in the past with new feature releases, the company appears to have quietly partnered with several key vendors as far back as January 2014 — before iOS 8 and HomeKit were even announced — to ensure that a few key accessories would be ready to go at launch. In fact, we were somewhat surprised that the three companies involved in HomeKit were actually somewhat new to the home automation space – iDevices, Incipio – while some of the established companies like Belkin haven’t been invited to the party yet.
2. HomeKit will only provide access to basic features, for now at least. From what we’ve seen at CES and been told by HomeKit developers, it looks like HomeKit will be limited to mostly binary operations. So you’ll be able to turn lights on and off, but things like dimming aren’t in the initial spec. Of course, this doesn’t mean that HomeKit accessories won’t be able to perform more advanced tasks through their own apps — they just won’t be able to do it using HomeKit operations such as Siri commands.
3. Siri will be a key feature of HomeKit. Apple has already previewed some of HomeKit’s features, but the most talked-about feature among HomeKit product manufacturers at CES was the Siri voice activation. While other services such as location and proximity will also form part of HomeKit, this is something that third-party apps have already addressed with varying levels of success. Siri voice activation, however, will be a unique feature that developers have previously been unable to take advantage of. Users will be able to issue voice commands like “Siri, turn off the bedroom lights.”
4. HomeKit will greatly simplify setup and integration. Another major benefit being touted by third-party vendors is the ease of setup and integration for HomeKit accessories. By integrating at the core iOS level, HomeKit will presumably provide a consistent and user-friendly pairing and setup experience, and will be able to activate Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections under the hood, rather than requiring the user to walk through more complicated processes that have traditionally involved steps such as manually connecting to networks or pairing devices. Further, HomeKit will allow devices from multiple vendors to be controlled through one single, consistent platform.
5. HomeKit will work mostly behind the scenes. HomeKit isn’t an “app” on iOS 8 and doesn’t replace third-party apps, and for now at least, it looks like each vendor will still have their own app to control their own hardware devices. However, HomeKit users will be able to take advantage of background features such as Siri voice activation, iOS level location and proximity services, and more. It’s unclear at this point how flexible each respective third-party app will be at controlling devices from other manufacturers, but the framework definitely seems to be there to support that. In fact, it seems likely that hardware-independent iOS developers could leverage HomeKit to create third-party apps that provided generic HomeKit features without being tied to any particular company’s accessory platform.
6. The Apple TV will be the HomeKit hub. While users will be able to use HomeKit features directly while in range of their home Wi-Fi connection, it appears that an Apple TV will be required for use of HomeKit features while away from home. Apple has apparently already added code to the latest Apple TV Software Updates to facilitate this capability, which will presumably tie into iCloud, and it’s merely waiting to be switched on. Some HomeKit vendors will provide their own cloud service in parallel with HomeKit for those who don’t have an Apple TV, although it seems these will work much like existing proprietary solutions. So, for example, you’ll be able to use iDevices’ Connected app to control the new iDevices Switch from anywhere, much like users of devices like Belkin’s WeMo can already do, but you won’t get Siri activation or the ability to tie into other HomeKit accessories. Users who want to use HomeKit remotely for anything beyond controlling a couple of light switches will likely end up wanting to invest in an Apple TV for this purpose alone.
7. HomeKit will support Wi-Fi to Bluetooth LE tunnels. While HomeKit provides direct support for Bluetooth LE, the spec also provides a standard for devices to “tunnel” BTLE connections to Wi-Fi. This would, for example, allow a BTLE door lock to be accessible via Wi-Fi without requiring its own Wi-FI transceiver. Both the bridge devices and remote BTLE devices will normally need to be HomeKit-certified by Apple, but Wi-Fi-to-BTLE bridges can be incorporated into accessories that serve other purposes. At least one vendor, iDevices, is planning to do this with its Switch product, making every outlet into a BTLE access point for the HomeKit Wi-Fi network, and avoiding the need for users to purchase a separate dedicated bridge product for this purpose.
8. HomeKit has a strong focus on security. HomeKit vendors noted that Apple’s specifications for the new technology were heavily focused on security and privacy aspects, with very strong encryption keys requiring special hardware chips, presumably incorporated into the standard Apple authentication chips required by most MFi accessories. At the iOS level, HomeKit pairing and authentication credentials will be stored in the iOS Keychain, encrypted in the same way that passwords are. Third-party apps will be required to request user access to HomeKit in much the same way privacy settings for things like Photos, Contacts, and HealthKit work now, and a “HomeKit” section will also appear in the iOS “Privacy” settings to view and control which third-party apps have been granted HomeKit access.
9. HomeKit will require totally new accessory hardware. There won’t be any firmware upgrades available for existing accessories to HomeKit-enable them. Apple’s focus on security and authentication chip requirements mean that completely new hardware designs are required to support HomeKit. Our sources tell us that Apple’s stringent design requirements essentially mean non-HomeKit products effectively require an almost complete redesign to meet Apple’s specs for HomeKit, making it easier to build an entirely new HomeKit product from scratch rather than upgrading an existing one. This may help to explain why we didn’t see any existing home automation companies invited by Apple to provide first-generation HomeKit products. This also leads us to believe that most HomeKit products will essentially support only HomeKit, rather than seeing solutions that simply add HomeKit to other home automation protocols such as Z-Wave. That said, once a product is HomeKit-certified by Apple at a hardware level, it will most likely be possible for firmware updates to add additional features down the road as the HomeKit feature set is expanded.
10. Apple will allow certain legacy home automation devices to be bridged. A very recent report indicates that Apple will allow a very specific set of non-HomeKit devices to be bridged into HomeKit. It seems that the supported types of devices will be extremely limited, with Wi-FI devices excluded completely, and BTLE devices limited to passive sensing devices such as door sensors and environmental monitors. Presumably for security purposes, any device capable of controlling the home, from a light bulb to a door lock, will not be supported unless it has actual HomeKit certification.
The first HomeKit products shown at CES are still at least a couple of months away from actually shipping, so there remains room for some additional refinements before this all arrives in consumers’ hands. However, the HomeKit frameworks are already in iOS 8.1, ready to go, so it’s safe to assume that Apple’s overall implementation is complete, at least for this generation of products. While we won’t know for sure until we get our own hands on some actual HomeKit accessories, we’re definitely very optimistic about what HomeKit brings to the table, as what it really promises to do is provide a level playing field for a home automation accessory market that’s currently a confusing wasteland of proprietary solutions which lock users into a single manufacturer’s platform.