Why Apple HomeKit can be a bigger player in the Smart Home market

Apple’s been on the front lines of the burgeoning smart home market, and it may finally be taking it up a notch.

Credit: Apple

In the past few years, smart home tech has gone from a niche category to one that's started to worm its way throughout our entire world. Apple's HomeKit has played a part in that, but as the market becomes more advanced, Cupertino's implementation is starting to strain at the seams.

Perhaps it's time for a serious re-think of HomeKit: not just how it works, but the very fundamentals that have taken us this far. The good news is that there's some evidence Apple may be headed down that road already, and hopefully, we're getting closer to seeing exactly what that reality might look like.

CHIP Ahoy!

In December of 2019, Apple teamed up with Amazon and Google to announce the launch of Project Connected Home over IP (CHIP). The top line idea was a bold one: create a new connectivity standard to make smart home tech more universally compatible. Also involved is the Zigbee Alliance, an industry group made up of companies working in the Internet of Things space, including major players like Samsung, IKEA, and Signify.

The implications of this project are big, for both companies and consumers. In theory, makers of smart home tech won't have to implement multiple protocols to work with smart home assistants from Apple, Amazon, and Google, not only potentially saving them money, but also allowing them to appeal to a larger audience. Likewise, consumers won't risk purchasing a device only to find that it doesn't work in their chosen ecosystem. Both of those could end up bolstering the market for smart home tech.

As always, there are caveats. When designing for a number of different systems, will all be able to take advantage of the same features? Moreover, what work do Apple, Amazon, and Google have to do behind the scenes in order to prepare their own platforms? Certainly, the benefits would seem to outweigh the downsides, but it's going to be a little while yet before we understand all the tradeoffs. Development on CHIP-compatible devices is proceeding, and some expect products using the new standard to start appearing sometime this year.

Check out this Thread

One indication that Apple might already be planning for this interconnected future was a product detail that flew largely under the radar. Last fall, Apple released the HomePod mini, a smaller and more affordable version of its smart speaker, which can also function as a hub for smart home tech, just like the larger version.

However, the HomePod mini included a couple of features that its larger sibling doesn't, one of which is a Thread radio. If you're not familiar with Thread, it's a mesh networking technology for smart home tech that's a fundamental part of the CHIP standard mentioned above, along with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. By adding it to the HomePod mini, it seems likely that Apple intends this device to be its first foray into a hub that supports CHIP.

homepod mini table white Apple

HomePod mini

It's also possible that it could work directly with not only Thread, but also Zigbee devices, which sometimes use the same chips, though they have different implementations. That could be a major advantage for the HomePod mini, since it could help transform it into a true smart home hub, obviating the need for separate hubs for each different manufacturer of smart home devices.

Currently, the footnote on the HomePod mini specs page says that the Thread chip is "[n]ot compatible with non-HomeKit Thread devices." That said, membership in the Thread Group (mandatory if a company is making Thread devices) requires adherence to the standard, and as one of the tenets of said group is a certain degree of compatibility, it's probable that a future software update will bring support for CHIP devices when they appear.

If you see an app, they blew it

Compatibility, however, is only one part of the divide. Apple's Home app on iOS and Mac, while friendly, quickly starts to feel cramped and crowded when you have more than a few smart home devices. There's nothing quite like paging through multiple screens to find that one light you want to turn off, thus making you wonder, once again, if a simple wall switch wouldn't be more effective.

That's not to say the Home app doesn't have its strengths: it's very handy for creating automations, for example. But when it comes to actually controlling devices, using Siri or accessing devices via Control Center is vastly superior, especially since the iOS 14 version of Control Center has gotten much smarter about which devices it shows you at any given time (thanks to some machine learning magic, presumably). The Mac, meanwhile, doesn't even have such a quick access option; instead you have to launch the Home app, which doesn't even feel particularly Mac-like, when it should just require, say, a trip to the menu bar. Third party options have filled that space now, but it certainly seems as though Apple didn't even care to think about how to adapt HomeKit to its own platform.

home app iphone 2021 Apple

The Home app could use an overhaul.

As smart home devices get more and more prevalent, Apple may want to reconsider the design of the Home app, turning it into a place that you go for more in-depth tasks, such as automations or configuring settings on your devices—the kind of thing that you only do once in a while, not several times throughout the day.

Between the improvements to compatibility and the way that we interact with our smart home devices, the next generation of Apple's smart home system is poised to become even more powerful, useful, and friendly, which bodes well for the company's future in the market.

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Dan Moren

Macworld.com
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