Apple’s HomeKit vision looks good in iOS 9 (but few people would know it)

Apple's home automation framework HomeKit works with digital assistant Siri.
Jason Cipriani

With the release of iOS 9 on Wednesday, Apple also updated its HomeKit home automation framework. Unfortunately, many of the new features are invisible to users without the devices to test them on, and so far we’re still stuck with four devices currently on the market that are HomeKit certified.

That will change in the next few weeks as iDevices launches three connected HomeKit devices it first showed off at the CES trade show in January. Homeowners should be able to pick up a connected outlet ($49), a connected outdoor outlet ($79) and a connected thermostat ($149). Those will be available in Lowe’s stores on Sept. 28.

On Oct. 1, ConnectSense, a company that makes Wi-Fi-based sensors, will start shipping a connected Wi-Fi outlet. A month later, Schlage will ship a lock that opens with a touch screen keypad or using Siri for voice control.

In that same fall time frame I expect to see more connected products from Philips Hue and others that have promised HomeKit compatibility, such as the August locks and Chamberlain garage door opener. Both were listed as partners when HomeKit launched back in June of 2014.

It’s been a long wait, but with iOS9 we can see where iOS is taking HomeKit. The goal of the framework is to help consumers build a secure and easy-to manage smart home made up of a variety of devices. Today, consumers tend to add a device or two, but there is no guarantee those devices will work together, which means consumers may control a thermostat from one app and their lights from another. Ambitious users might purchase a home hub to bring all of these devices together, but even that is a challenge because no hub works with every device on the market, and programming them to do what you want is a pain.

To fix this problem, Apple has focused on three areas. They are making it easier to get devices onto a home network, improving the automation experience and adding remote access. I haven’t tested these out yet, because I don’t have the gear, but it sounds like it is on the right track, based on what I’ve learned.

Starting with setup, iOS 9 allows homeowners to use their camera to set up the device thanks to a unique code on the item (they can also type in the code). HomeKit also now has profiles that distinguish between many classes of devices, so HomeKit will know that the item you are adding is a light switch and what it can do.

This is different from the way many current hubs add devices. For example, when adding a device to SmartThings or Wink, I choose the device if it’s supported in the software and then I can add it through a three-or four-step pairing process in the app. If the device isn’t listed it may require a few more steps, and there’s also no guarantee that a hub will even recognize the device correctly. In several systems, my shades are recognized as a light switch.

Because Apple controls the certification process for HomeKit, all of the devices are listed. It has the ability to control a database of IDs that can define a device and what it does, making setup a bit easier. There are also new permissions associated with HomeKit devices that will make it easier for the homeowner to control who can access and control each device, which means your guests can have access to your door locks and thermostat while they are in town, but not when they leave.

When it comes to the day-to-day automation, Apple has added “triggers,” such as using the phone’s location to open a garage door, or other sensors such a motion sensor to turn on lights. This seems pretty basic and it was surprising that HomeKit launched without it. I’m looking forward to seeing how Apple offers users the ability to set up recipes and rules around these triggers. Right now, it’s pretty complicated for most people, so systems that can auto-suggest popular actions based on a user’s habits or the devices they have seems like a consumer-friendly way of doing it.

Scenes, a pre-set configuration of lighting, temperature, and other gadgets, also gets a bit of a switch up in iOS 9. Apple will change its previous version of “scenes” to something called “custom scenes,” which will cover individually defined use cases, such as movie night or dinner-party lighting. These custom scenes will be specific to a person’s tastes, and will differ from something new that Apple is introducing called pre-defined scenes.

The latter are for waking up, going to bed, leaving the house and returning home. This should help both developers and users build some use cases that will offer immediate value, even if someone doesn’t care to make the effort to pre-program movie-night lighting.

Siri will also know these scenes, so if a user casually drops them in conversation, her home could soon respond accordingly. I hear it will also be easy to capture settings once they are established, so if you’ve managed to create the perfect ambiance for cooking and want to save it, HomeKit will make that easy. Again, this is something I want to test before I get too excited about it though.

Finally, when the person and their phone is away from the home, the focus is on using iCloud’s Remote Access to let the user control those devices from afar. At one point in time there was talk of using the Apple TV for this, but that doesn’t seem to be the case according to developers I’ve spoken to. Using iCloud is better for users because it means they don’t need to shell out for another device if they are already purchasing connected locks and lights and everything else.

There’s a lot to digest with all of these changes, and if Apple has managed to build a user-friendly and secure ecosystem of smart home devices it could certainly help drive home automation forward. However, give the leaps the industry has made since HomeKit was announced, much of what Apple appears to have on offer doesn’t seem as revolutionary as it once might have.

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