Apple has proven me wrong about HomeKit

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The Internet of Shit is a column about all the shitty things we try to connect to the internet, and what can be done about it. It’s from the anonymous creator of the Internet of Shit Twitter account.

Earlier this year, I wrote that Apple’s HomeKit was a failure as a standard for the Internet of Things, but since then, Apple has turned around and proven me wrong. The company has made major changes to HomeKit that accelerate the standard’s trajectory, making it easier for manufacturers to use while offering a compelling platform for the future of connected devices in the home.

Back when HomeKit was announced, Apple set forth rules that made the standard incredibly onerous for device makers: they had to add a specific Apple-approved authentication chip to their devices, get the device approved by the company, and tell nobody about it. If they were unlucky, maybe Apple would take issue with where it was being manufactured and kill the whole project. Oh, and if you were an Android user, you were shit out of luck.


Slide from WWDC session “What’s New in HomeKit.”
Image: Apple

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That position has changed in a big way this year. At WWDC in May, Apple quietly announced that it planned to relax some of those restrictions. The biggest change was the introduction of software-based authentication. In other words, you won’t have to replace your stuff to make it Apple-compatible going forward, and you’ll get HomeKit’s lauded security thrown in for free — provided the device maker actually goes in and implements it.

Ikea, which announced its own smart lighting system in 2016, looks to be one of the first companies to take advantage of this change: it’ll add HomeKit support, presumably via a software update, later this year. So there should be no need to pay for replacement hardware like when Philips required users to buy a HomeKit-compatible version of its Hue hub. In the future, these HomeKit-via-software updates could mean products from Nest get HomeKit compatibility, simply because the company will be able to expand its user base retrospectively. What remains to be seen is how many device makers will follow the charge.

There’s one other key feature that makes HomeKit interesting: if device makers want to use it, they’re required to integrate directly with Apple’s Home app and can’t force you to use a third-party app exclusively. That’s huge, simply because it grants you the freedom to avoid touching the device maker’s software on your phone if you don’t want it, and it allows you to interact with the smart home directly through Apple’s app without an intermediary. In theory, it means you really own your devices, and they shouldn’t just break if the company that makes them disappears since you’ll still have a direct connection with each device, thanks to HomeKit.

HomeKit still assumes everyone in your house has an iPhone in their pocket all the time, but with the announcement of the Apple HomePod smart speaker, that changes as well. Android-loving family and friends can just use their voice to tap into your smart home, which brings it on par with Amazon and Google (albeit at a far higher price of $349) when it ships later this year.


Don’t forget the Apple TV
Apple

This isn’t to say HomeKit is perfect: you still need to spend a lot of money on a HomePod or Apple TV to get full functionality, such as remote access or home automation. There’s also still a relative lack of choice in the HomeKit accessory market, but Apple’s efforts to expand the category are slowly bearing fruit. Works With Nest is similarly plagued by limited choice, as noted in The Wirecutter’s “The Best Smart Hub” review. Other platforms like Samsung’s $80 SmartThings Hub basically allow you to wire up every permutation of smart sensor you can imagine (sometimes at the expense of security, compatibility, and ease of use).

Additionally, while the rules surrounding HomeKit’s implementation have been relaxed, Apple’s review process is just as arduous: if you want to sell certified hardware, you’ll have to get it approved — and that could have taken up to five months in the past. But Apple is streamlining the process, having recently announced an increase in its review capacity with new testing labs in the US and abroad, and new automated tools to speed up the process.

Because Apple provides detailed instructions on how to actually build a secure device, the review process should prevent major security mix-ups long term from inexperienced or ham-fisted device makers. That should help it avoid feeding into networks like the Mirai botnet which used thousands of compromised security cameras to attack targets en masse.

Despite these nitpicks, Apple’s recent changes, additions, and loosening of the hardware authentication restriction are making it easier for anyone to build, experiment with, and use HomeKit while still maintaining a high level of security. As I see it, HomeKit now has far more potential in the long run than any of its competitors.

Maybe Apple can save us from the Internet of Shit after all.

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