It appears that Apple has finally gotten serious about HomeKit over the last year. It’s about time. Like the Apple TV, this is a business that Apple beat the competition to by miles but then sat on that lead without moving forward. Ultimately, they were passed up in both streaming content devices and Home Automation. The reasons were different, but the outcomes unfortunately the same.
Apple still pays little but lip service to the Apple TV hardware, but they have been making moves to get more traction for their HomeKit platform to start a long game of catch-up with Amazon and Google.
First off, it has been far too difficult for companies making Home Automation components to make HomeKit compatible gear. Apple’s requirement of a separate, proprietary and costly authentication chip was a big impediment. This is especially true considering that Amazon and Google basically gave makers and developers an open door to their competing platforms.
Apple wisely announced a reversal of this decision back in 2017, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that we finally started to see new TVs and Home Automation devices adopting HomeKit and other Apple standards at CES. They have followed this up with more good decisions to continue this small amount of momentum.
The next one was Apple’s announcement that they would be opening up the HomeKit standard to allow anyone to develop devices and integrations. Apple actually announced this back in 2017, as well, but it only included open access to their HomeKit Accessory Protocol initially.
This wasn’t enough to really move the needle in favor of HomeKit, but a new development may change that. Last week, Apple, Amazon, Google and the Zigbee Alliance formed a new working group that will be developing a new royalty-free standard protocol for unified communication between Home Automation products. In response, Apple is making parts of HomeKit open-source and is opening up the full Accessory Development Kit for HomeKit to developers. This initiative is called Project Connected Home over IP and will create a protocol that will allow all IP-based Home Automation gear to communicate with all of the major platforms going forward.
I can tell you from experience the kind of transformation that a move like this can bring. I work in the Commercial and Industrial Automation industry and this problem was solved by the major players in these markets over 20 years ago. All of the major platforms used for much wider-scale and more powerful automation of larger facilities have had a set of three major open communication protocols since I have been in the field, and that is over 18 years. At this point, 99.9% of HVAC, energy monitoring, energy management, access control, video monitoring or other Building Automation solutions can be tied into a “single pane of glass” system that can control every aspect of an entire building, or even a multi-site campus.
When I started back in 2001, the open-protocol revolution was just taking hold and beginning to upend the normal business model. Like Home Automation today, the norm at the time in Commercial and Industrial Automation was proprietary systems that used manufacturer-specific proprietary communication protocols. Everything was locked down. When you made a commitment to a vendor, you were locked into them for the life of the system and the only way to change that was a complete rip and replace of everything.
The move to open protocols changed all of this. The vendors who tried to hold to their proprietary systems to keep customers locked in eventually had to adopt these new standards by the force of market pressure. Frankly, they got their asses handed to them and fast. I can remember how easy it was to pitch a new system against them that could easily integrate controls and equipment from multiple vendors. It was a far better and more financially viable approach to deliver the best system possible at a reasonable cost. It also made systems far more future proof. Now, every industry player uses open protocols pretty much exclusively. Through the free market, customers won a decisive victory here.
Maybe the same upheaval and disruption is finally coming to the Home Automation industry. This has been my biggest critique of these systems and one of the primary reasons I haven’t been interested in getting into Home Automation to this point. Other than greed and an overriding need for control, I couldn’t understand why this industry insisted on re-inventing a wheel that’s been rolling quite well for many years in a parallel market. While it seems that the major players for the home are still going their own route in making a new open standard, at least they finally see the light. This is the best move for all users in the end and should ultimately bolster all platforms and encourage accessory makers to bring more gear to market.
Considering that Apple has been a distant third in this race for a long time now, a new open standard for Home Automation helps them the most, in my opinion. Now, existing Amazon Alexa and Google Home adopters who are Apple users could start to use their iOS devices to control some of the same gear. From what I know about how open standards take hold, it shouldn’t be long after it becomes available before most new Home Automation gear uses it. That means all the goodies we’ve seen that support Alexa and Home should also support HomeKit in the near future.
Any platform needs something compelling to set it apart from the pack. This becomes more of a challenge when you leverage open protocols, because the hardware available becomes a commodity. However, this is where Apple’s focus on user data privacy could be that differentiator. This becomes an even bigger selling point if Apple gets access to more hardware for their HomeKit platform. Add in another differentiator like HomeKit Secure Home Video, which was announced back at WWDC and is now coming to market, and you have some new selling points that HomeKit did not have a year ago.
As far behind as Apple is, it’s really now or never when it comes to relevance for HomeKit. They will never have a better opportunity than suddenly getting access to a lot more hardware and there is no better message to resonate with consumers today than a focus on privacy. Apple’s best bet is to put the full amount of time, effort and support behind this standard to insure that it succeeds. If they can, then HomeKit could finally start living up to its potential.