When Apple HomeKit launched in 2014, the smart home was anyone’s game. The Echo, Alexa’s trojan horse, wouldn’t be announced for another two months, and the Google Assistant not for two years. Home automation was still a bungled mess.
Apple has principled itself on being “best, not first,” but HomeKit was the first of the big three platforms to land. Sure enough, unlike some of Apple’s less punctual products – the Apple Watch, Apple Music – HomeKit has been much slower to take hold.
But when the most basic HomeKit control requires nothing more than an iPhone, 900 million of which are actively in use (you’ll find an Apple smartphone in almost 45% of American pockets) you have to wonder: what’s going on?
Read this: The best HomeKit devices for your smart home
And for a long time, there was an easy answer. In order for device makers to gain HomeKit certification, Apple dictated that they’d have to install a physical custom chip – an encryption processor – into their products.
That was a big demand for device makers, and as Amazon and Google began to grow their own smart home platforms which only demanded software certification, they became much more attractive. “I think the damage was done early, so it really has left Apple constantly trying to catch up after getting stuck at the starting gate, due to this initial [hardware] requirement,” Simon Bramley, editor of HomeKit News, tells The Ambient.
So with the launch of iOS 11 in 2017, Apple changed the process. Rather than a chip, device makers could certify their products using a HomeKit software tool. At the time it was predicted this would usher in a tonne of HomeKit devices, but it didn’t happen.
I think the damage was done early
According to companies we’ve spoken to – many on the condition of anonymity, due to NDA agreements they’ve signed with Apple – the current HomeKit certification program is still much more stringent than either Amazon or Google’s.
A lot of this is down to how Apple handles the flow of data. Alexa and Google Assistant use cloud-to-cloud integration, but HomeKit is actually an offline protocol: Apple demands that much of the communication takes place locally, instead of beaming everything to the cloud. When controlling from outside of the home, everything must go through a HomeKit hub – a HomePod, an Apple TV or an iPad.
For smart home companies to get HomeKit approval, they need to build this local control into their devices, and this is the sticking point: some companies, particularly security device makers, prefer to only allow for devices to connect to their cloud service, and in butting heads with Apple over this point, many have eventually decided to forego HomeKit.
No easy task
This isn’t the only reason HomeKit has been slow to catch. “Even though it is presented as ‘software-based’ authentication, the hardware behind it must be able to handle the processing load that is usually covered by the special MFI chip that Apple required for the first several years of the platform’s life,” says Christopher Close, founder of the site HomeKit Hero.
Security tasks like encryption can be too demanding on low-power devices that often populate the smart home. “It is not the free-for-all process or software tool that would just open the floodgates to manufacturers like originally thought.”
August was one of the first companies to get in the door with HomeKit, featuring in Apple’s 2014 WWDC HomeKit presentation – but the company wouldn’t roll out a HomeKit-ready product for two years.
“We realized that the computational requirements for the encryption for HomeKit were were significantly higher than we were going to be able to handle in that first product,” Christopher Dow, chief technology officer at August, tells The Ambient.
August has now launched a HomeKit-compatible version of its smart lock and, more recently, its Connected by August upgrade module. But it took a lot of work on August’s part to make these HomeKit hook-ups happen.
“The certification process in the beginning was, you know, it was a little rough,” says Dow. “And then we kind of had to work through with Apple on, you know, when do we use HomeKit and when do we use our own protocol? That was a little bit of a sticking point actually. In the beginning, our first HomeKit submission was actually rejected.”
In some places, Apple also enforces more stringent performance requirements than Amazon and Google, such as setting the quality levels of video streams; if the device maker can’t meet the minimum resolution and frame rate, it won’t get certified.
Apple’s smart speaker – or lack thereof – has also been blamed for HomeKit’s sluggishness. It took Apple until 2017 to launch the HomePod, by which point it was well behind in the race.
“One of the key factors driving consumer IoT is the penetration of smart speakers, and Apple’s HomePod badly lags Amazon and Google in installed base,” says Avi Greengart, president and lead analyst at Techsponential.
Sound quality isn’t the requirement for controlling smart gadgets
It’s easy to see the cycle that worked against Apple’s favor: a low install rate led to manufacturers jumping to Amazon/Google, while growing rate of Alexa/Google Assistant smart speakers meant consumers were looking to devices compatible with those platforms – which were growing in abundance because it was easier for manufacturers to build for them.
As of writing, Apple only has one smart speaker, the HomePod, which launched in 2017 and currently costs $299. Amazon’s cheapest smart speaker, meanwhile, costs just $45 (often less due to the company’s frequent promotions) and Google’s Nest Mini is $49.
This aggressive strategy by Amazon and Google to get their assistants – and by extension, entire platforms – into our homes has paid dividends. Canalys data shows Amazon in a comfortable lead with 36.6% of the smart speaker market share in Q3, with Google holding 12.3%, and both Baidu and Alibaba sandwiched between them. Apple doesn’t make the top five.
“As good as the HomePod is, it can’t compete on price against the offerings of the other two, when sound quality isn’t the requirement for controlling smart gadgets,” says Simon Bramley of HomeKit News.
Read this: Apple HomeKit Secure Video explained
So, what next? Apple is still pushing ahead with HomeKit, but most likely, growth will be slow. The recent HomeKit Secure Video, which encrypts all videos on a HomeKit hub and then stores them securely on iCloud, is a way for Apple to make progress in the smart home while keeping a focus on privacy.
Interestingly, both Amazon and Google are both trying to offload more work to devices locally. For a while, Amazon has offered some versions of its smart speakers with Zigbee radios, but it has also moved more Alexa processing offline, perhaps a bigger signal that it’s interested in more local-level grinding. Several smart home companies talking to The Ambient say they believe both Google and Amazon are going to push for more local control in 2020.
“As much as I would like to say that I see things speeding up over the course of the next year, I don’t see things changing much at this point in time,” says Christopher Close. “Apple’s focus on privacy, while great for consumers, ultimately dictates the direction of the entire company, including HomeKit.”
Close posits that the arrival of Siri Shortcuts, a way to simplify complex tasks into a single action, is Apple finding a “middle ground” that gives manufacturers access to the large iOS install base, but whose devices don’t blend with HomeKit otherwise.
“If they were able to offer the Home app on Android devices, i think it would make a massive difference, but once again this has implications for privacy, so it may not happen any time soon,” suggests Simon Bramley. “Then again, they have now got the Apple TV app on Samsung Televisions, so you never know.”