A new report by Reuters comparing Apple and Amazon’s home automation strategies provides some interesting insight into the very different approaches that the two companies are taking to the home automation market. Suggesting that Amazon’s recent successes in the home automation arena may pose new competition for Apple, the report details some of the challenges that Apple and its partners face in delivering HomeKit solutions that are up to the company’s standard. Apple takes a stringent approach in ensuring that its home automation platform remains secure, so manufacturers who wish to produce HomeKit-compatible solutions must incorporate special chips into their products — this is the main reason why HomeKit support cannot be added to legacy products via firmware updates — and Apple also requires developers to incorporate specific Wi-Fi and Bluetooth chips into their hardware. These requirements increase costs, although even companies purchasing in smaller volumes suggest that the numbers are only around $0.50 to $2 per chip for the specialized chips. Additional costs for the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth chips weren’t discussed.
Apple also requires that manufacturers produce HomeKit devices in Apple-certified factors; Reuters obtained a confidential Apple document listing more than 800 Apple-certified factors, but noted that only a few of them specialize in home automation products. The limited selection of approved manufacturing facilities results in device manufacturers facing challenges in getting the best prices or working with their preferred factories. The report cited an off-the-record comment from one manufacturer who couldn’t use a large and reputable producer of household technology brands simply because they weren’t Apple certified. Apple also requires that device makers send samples of their products to Apple’s Cupertino labs for compatibility testing, a process that can take three to five months. During this time, they cannot publicly announce that they’re pursuing HomeKit certification. Some developers, however, note that there are benefits to this approach, as Apple can discover product issues that many companies — especially smaller startups — may not find in their own testing.
It’s worth noting that most of these procedures aren’t unique to HomeKit devices; members of Apple’s MFi program have long worked under similar rules and limitations to produce other devices such as speakers with Lightning or AirPlay compatibility. However, as the Reuters report notes, in the HomeKit space this puts Apple at odds with Amazon’s more “open” approach, which only requires that software code be submitted to Amazon for review, and doesn’t require any hardware testing at all unless companies wish to place an entirely optional “Works with Alexa” label on their products. These easier procedures have placed the number of Alexa-compatible devices ahead of Apple’s HomeKit offerings by a ratio of 2.5 to 1. However, even Amazon acknowledges that unlike Apple, they take no part in guaranteeing the security of third-party devices. Unlike Apple HomeKit, Amazon Alexa home integration also remains primarily focused on adding voice activation to otherwise vendor-centric control systems, rather than providing the unified user experience that HomeKit offers.