Back in 2014 when Apple announced their Smart Home initiative named HomeKit it turned our Smart Home world upside down. Immediately editors and analysts where beating each other in their projections how fast and how radical Apple will change this young industry. Even in 2015, when the first excitement was already gone some analysts where still projecting HomeKit being the next big thing in Smart Home.
By the time of this article there are meanwhile at least a few HomeKit compatible device on sale but their comparably low number and the lack of an exciting user interface on the iPhone or the iPad plus the general ignorance by larger players in the industry has cooled down the mood. What happened?
First look at the facts first. HomeKit is not a new Smart Home standard but a so-called middleware. Initially it was supposed to use WIFI and Bluetooth networking layer only. About 6 month later Apple had realized that it’s not a super-smart idea to ignore all the millions of already installed devices and extended the scope to traditional smart home protocols such as Z-Wave or ZigBee.
The core task of a middleware is to unify the different networking layers and provide a unified technology agnostic interface for applications. Generally this is a smart idea but the same time nobody in the industry has solved the task well. The challenge of all middleware’s in general and HomeKit in particular is to unify different protocol and application worlds without loosing too much of device or protocol individual functions and features. Some devices with some protocols may be super simple (like an on/off switch) while others have the same core function but provide extensive additional functions. By focusing on the core functions, most of the extra functionality and extra value of certain devices to networking protocols gets lost. Least common denominator is the technical term of this approach. The other option is to preserve most of device and protocol specific functions but this essentially makes the middleware useless because all application using them still needs plenty of hardware knowledge. Apple as new kid on the block in Smart Home had started with some profiles that looked quite basic – least common denominator – compared to the offerings of companies with years of experience in the market place.
Moreover there was and is nothing HomeKit offers that users can’t get from other solutions in the market place already. The integration with Siri was innovative in the first place however speech recognition devices such as Amazon Echo or the recently announced Google Home box fit way better in the usage scenarios of a Smart Home – you can control the home but you don’t have to hold a device in hand.
Apple biggest HomeKit achievement was its security architecture. Not only did they suggest the latest and the greatest in encryption (elliptic curves) and key management, HomeKit made individual end-2-end security a mandatory feature. The general idea was 100 % right and on time. Other security approaches like the Thread Protocol pushed by Google or the most recent security additions to Z-Wave essentially copy this idea and proof that the focus on security was needed indeed.
However Apple made one large mistake. While trying to stay hardware agnostic and focus on the middleware function Apple forces all vendors of HomeKit compatible devices to comply to their MFI (manufactured for iPhone) program by integrating the Apple crypto processor for authentication into their hardware. This was and is a quite high barrier for new entrants, significantly adds to the cost and creates a large bureaucratic process overhead to get approval by Apple, even for simple and otherwise cheap devices. Apple went even further looking into hardware requirements for standard WIFI and Bluetooth chips. All this created a lot of frustration on the vendor side with the result now becoming visible. Last but not least HomeKit has another major disadvantage. It is limited to mobile devices made by Apple – certainly an interesting but also small piece of the market.
It speaks for its own that Apple so far did not even launch their own app for their own devices taking advantage of the unified HomeKit interface – clearly a sign that Apples either believe the market is not attractive of they should stay on the sideline for a bit longer
What should we expect from Apple HomeKit? Honestly not much. The biggest advantage – its security infrastructure – is not available from other players in the market as well. Apple has not mentioned their Smart Home (Step?) child for quite some time in their developer’s conferences or press releases. Unless there is a re-launch with functions and features not known and available in the market place HomeKit will remain a small footnote in the history of Smart Home.