Technology has made its way into every nook and cranny of our lives over the past decade, and there’s no reason to think that trend’s about to stop now. As we roll into the ‘20s, Apple has positioned itself at the forefront of a bunch of different technological niches, but one place that it seems to be putting an especial amount of attention in the year ahead is smart home technology.
Apple’s no newbie to the market, of course. HomeKit, the company’s smart home framework, has been around since 2014, and though it was slow to take off, a few key changes have helped it become more popular as the years have gone on.
That said, there’s a lot of competition in the smart home arena, which can mean extra complications when the field is growing so fast: fragmentation, problems with interoperability, and so on. But, in a rare move for Apple, it seems as though the company is moving to combat those problems head on…by working with others.
In December 2019, Apple announced that it would be joining major smart home players like Amazon, Google and the Zigbee Alliance (which itself includes several big companies, like Sony, Samsung SmartThings, IKEA, and Signify) to create a new industry working-group, the Project Connected Home Over IP. Though the name may be about as resonant as a mouthful of marbles, the idea behind it is sound: unify the frameworks used for controlling smart home tech so that devices work better together.
Unlike some existing smart home tech systems, the Connected Home project—as its name suggests—will be built on top of the existing Internet Protocol (IP) system, i.e. the way most technological devices already communicate. In theory, that could help reduce the need for intermediary hub devices, as well as enable more peer-to-peer connections among devices themselves. And because the project uses tech that’s already been built out by many of the working group’s members, it should be something that many existing smart home devices can take advantage of.
Apple’s not always the best at playing well with others, so the company’s full-throated endorsement of this project is a positive sign. Unlike other markets Apple has entered, the company’s probably not going to dominate this one, not least of all because it doesn’t currently compete in most of the smart home tech categories, like switches, lighting, or appliances. But the company does want all of those devices made by others to work with Siri and the Home app—and sometimes that means swallowing your pride and ensuring that everything works just as well for the products of your competitors.
Again, this unusual move demonstrates Apple’s realization that smart home tech can’t be developed and rolled out in a vacuum. With so many products in this market, the company needs to be a good citizen and work with third parties to make sure that the devices consumers want are interoperable with its smart home system. And given that CES remains the largest consumer electronics show in the U.S., well, you need to go where the business is. (Just don’t expect an Apple booth, or any new first-party products out of this event. That might be taking things a little far.)
It doesn’t seem farfetched to suggest that 2020 is shaping up to be a significant year for Apple’s smart home agenda. But now that the company has made strides towards interoperability, what next steps might it take?
I’ve long advocated that Apple should consider dipping its toe into the smart home device market, if only to provide an example of “best practices” for manufacturers of HomeKit-compatible devices. While the emphasis on interoperability and relationships with third parties seems to lend credence to the idea that Apple doesn’t want to build its own smart home devices, it does perhaps raise the possibility of building more capabilities into its own products that help support smart home tech.
For example, while several Apple devices—such as the HomePod, Apple TV, and iPad—can act as smart home hubs for the purposes of HomeKit automation, none of those devices offer the ability to communicate with Zigbee-based devices (say, the very popular Hue bulbs) without a second intermediary hub. Apple could choose to add Zigbee support into a next-generation HomePod or Apple TV—as Amazon did with its Echo Plus—thus eliminating the need for a separate hub device on the network.
Likewise, Apple’s Home app is itself in need of a makeover, especially now that more and more consumers are taking advantage of HomeKit. A recent proof of concept demonstrates some ways that the company could improve its Home app to provide better access to features and more customizability. The Home app has remained largely unchanged since its arrival in 2016, and it’s probably time for it to get some updates to bring it into this new and exciting decade.
One place that Apple has led the charge in smart home tech is security and privacy, with iOS 13 even adding features like letting security cameras record locally rather than sending their video the cloud. Here’s hoping that this is one place Apple rubs off on its competitors, ensuring we all get the benefits of smart home tech without the vulnerabilities in 2020 and beyond.
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Dan has been writing about all things Apple since 2006, when he first started contributing to the MacUser blog. He's a prolific podcaster and the author of the Galactic Cold War series, including his latest, The Nova Incident, coming in July 2022.