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Fixing Apple HomeKit for 2020

Home app on an iPhone
Home app on an iPhone (Image credit: Rene Ritchie / iMore)

CES — formerly known as the consumer electronics show — is kicking off this week in Las Vegas. On display and behind closed doors will be everything every manufacturer and store thinks we're going to want to buy come the big holiday shopping season at the end of the year.

iMore, Windows Central, Android Central, Cord Cutters, MrMobile — all my colleagues are there covering it right now, so keep it locked to all their links-in-the-description for the best, worst, and just plain weirdest of the show.

Last year, I did a whole video on what I thought was going to be the coolest new HomeKit… kit of the year. But, some of the stuff I was most looking forward to still seems MIA. So, rather than rinse and repeat that this year, especially in light of some recent announcements, I figured I should step back and take a bigger, more pictured look at where HomeKit is and where I think it needs to be in 2020.

Consistency

I've mentioned this several times before on this channel and I'm going to keep mentioning it every chance I can get until it changes, because that's me, but HomeKit remains one of Apple's strangest brands to me. Because it's just the raw framework name. And it feels that way — raw, technical, almost sterile.

Two white homepods sitting on a television stand

Two white homepods sitting on a television stand (Image credit: iMore)

Siri isn't SiriKit, Music isn't MusicKit, Arcade isn't Core Arcade, and Messages isn't APNsend or whatever. But, for some reason, Home is still HomeKit.

But I'd so very much love to see the brand changed to Apple Home.

Clean, simple, friendly, and consistent.

It sounds small, petty maybe, and certainly, Apple is way, way better at branding than I'll ever be. But every time I see the mark, the Kit just sticks out at me. And the only part that should stick out is the Home.

Compatibility

One of the most frustrating parts of HomeKit over the last few years is Apple's competitors, namely Google, Amazon, and Samsung, have gobbled up home accessory makers. Samsung got SmartThings, Google got Nest and Dropcam, Amazon got Ring and Blink and Eero. And as a result, some of the biggest ones, like Nest, their HomeKit support just somehow never got announced.

It's not really a surprise. Even Google, which loves to talk about openness, never really supports anything unless they're forced to. Just ask late, lamented Windows Phone users.

But, there's reason to be hopeful here now. Apple, along with Amazon, Google, Samsung, and others including Zigbee, even Ikea, have formed CHIP: The Connected Home over Internet Protocol project.

I'll believe it when I see Nest support HomeKit, of course, but if everything works out — and make no mistake, that's still a very big, huge if — in the nebulous future, any home accessory you buy will just work with Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa, and all the other systems.

And, if you have multiple assistants in your home, like an Android phone, an iPad, an Alexa, and a bunch of different hubs and speakers, every accessory will hopefully just work with all of them, so the pain is shifted off customers and onto the companies. You know, where it's supposed to be.

Control

Over the last few years, Apple's gone from hardware to software security for HomeKit, and now they're even open sourcing some of it as part of the CHIP alliance. But, even with all those back-ends changed, I'd argue Apple still has more work to do on the front end as well.

We all love to complain about how controlling Apple can be but the truth is, we complain even more about the stuff Apple leaves for other people to control. And, with HomeKit, they've still left way too much control in the hands of the accessory makers.

I'm sure there were reasons for it, but in the very beginning, there wasn't even a Home app. You had to control HomeKit through a variety of terrible accessory maker apps. Now, even though Apple has finally put out the Home app, the terrible accessory maker apps keep interfering.

I can't count the number of times the Hue app or some other accessory maker app has over-written and screwed up my Home settings. Currently, I can't even use my smart lock as a smart lock because the August app only shows and shares it once every month or so, if it feels like it. So, yeah, I'm left using keys. Like an animal. And the Hunter app has just never worked for me.

It's beyond time for Apple to just remove all Home management features from those terrible accessory maker apps and only allow setup changes from within the Home app.

I mean, I get it, the accessory makers want to keep control over what they consider to be their experiences. But they're just not good at experiences. They're good at making accessories. So, concentrate on that. Focus on that. Do that. And let Apple do what they're good at — the experience.

Maybe let the apps do cute stuff like special features on an accessory-by-accessory basis, but better still would be making them empty shells, like sticker or keyboard apps. You download them to add them to home, and so that you have to register a dumb account with them like every accessory maker really wants you to do, but then they stay out of your way and out of your Home setup.

For good.

Contraptions

I've done a whole video on this one, so I'll link it up below and keep the recap brief, but Apple has long believed that they need to own the key technologies in order to provide the best products. And I have, and will continue to argue, that Apple needs to own more of the home if they really want to provide the best experience there.

Apple AirPort Extreme Time Capsule

Apple AirPort Extreme Time Capsule (Image credit: Rene Ritchie / iMore)

Sure, Apple's strategy of laser-focus means they have to be incredibly selective about the products they work on, and can only work on a few at a time, and they're just working their way out of an update hole where it comes to the Mac, and every blogger, podcaster, pundit, and YouTuber on the planet is more than happy to tell them how to spend all their money, thrice over, on a daily basis.

But…

I'm still going to say Apple needs to rethink ending the AirPort line of routers, and seriously consider pushing out their own versions of the other most security and privacy important accessories.

HomeKit secure routers and cameras are fine, great even. But, there are very few companies whose recent histories have given any consumer legitimate reason to trust them with our privacy and security at home. With the bits that leave our devices for the internet, and with the ones that are meant to keep us safe.

Apple has had their own share of screw-ups, absolutely, including with Siri grading just last year, but by virtue of their business model, even those screw-ups get taken care of quickly and have minimal damage radiuses compared to other companies that depend on our data for their business.

So, count me among the many who'd still love to see an Apple-made mesh router, security camera, door lock, and doorbell. None of which store any data on any server accessible by anyone else beyond us.

And, if Apple really, sincerely believes they just don't have the bandwidth, maybe form an offshoot company, like their Filemaker database subsidiary, or Beats headphone subsidiary, that just handles all that, but with Apple's values and policies firmly in place.

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Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

4 Comments
  • First, I'd like to second the notion of bringing back the Airport. I still use my Airport Extreme, and rather than going to a nice new mesh router, I simply bought a used Airport Express to use as a repeater. Now, I wish everything could be run through the Home app, but I rarely have to go to the individual apps anyway. I need the iDevices app to tell me when the filter needs changing, and the Eve app if I want to see barometric pressure outside (Home only does temperature and humidity), but not much else. My number one complaint about all this is that so many of the devices are unreliable. I have 10 smart bulbs running in the home connected to a Nanoleaf hub, and I don't think I have ever had a situation where all 10 are working at once. I usually have 3 to 5 bulbs not responding at any given time. More frustrating is that the HomePod can often control the lights that the Home App says are "not responding." So, I reset the hub, turn the lights off and on again at the switches, and the Home App says all are responding, but the HomePod says some of them are not. Ok, then one Apple TV can turn a light off, but the other can't turn it on. No problem, because 15 minutes later, they will reverse. It seems that the smart switches, outlets, thermostats, sensors, et al are ready for primetime, but the smart bulbs are way too unreliable to be used regularly. All this is not Apple's fault, but I wish they'd make a zigbee hub at least. Then it would actually work!
  • The Airport was great, I think Apple was wrong to let it go, it was a product that did indeed "just work". There are still many routers out there with horrible web interfaces that don't adapt to mobile, and just aren't user-friendly at all.
  • +1,000,000. Completely dropping the ball on home automation is one of Tim Cook's biggest failures. Google and Amazon (freaking Amazon!!!) are eating Apple's lunch. I love my HomePod, but why do I have to spend that much twice to get stereo sound? Sell a cheaper sidekick model without the touchscreen, microphone and onboard Siri. And where are the HomePod Minis/Siri Dots? Maybe I want a Siri microphone in my kitchen but I don't want a full-blown HomePod. Just a small mic built into a wall plug. How hard is this??? Many years ago MacRumors (and others) whispered about Apple going full-bore into home automation. Of course it didn't happen, and Google/Amazon happily filled the space. Apple is an ECOSYSTEM company, a PLATFORM company. Yet they don't provide solid options for home automation and security. Pitiful. I refuse to put Google or Amazon listening devices in my home, yet the HomeKit alternatives have been so depressingly slow to materialize. Also, I agree dropping AirPort was stupid. Was it a big money-maker? Of course not. Did it fill an important niche in the Apple ecosystem? YES!!! Come on Tim, this is embarrassing.
  • I'd agree absolutely. HomeKit is a huge area where Apple has completely lost the plot. And running all HomeKit devices through an Uber-Secure Apple Router would be a huge advantage, if they still made routers. Bad missed opportunity there as well. But there's one more thing. Give me a reason to buy a HomeKit device. Apple (and Google and Amazon) keep using home automation to do what we already can do, but connected to the internet. I've ranted about this several times but I see no reason to replace my perfectly good automatic thermostat with one that does the same thing, but is accessible from the other side of the world via an App. I have no need for that, and see no reason to pay a premimium for this ability. Same goes for motion sensor lights, or garage door openers, or door locks. The idea is great but it is being badly under utilized. It would be like if Henry Ford invented the assembly line, to put together wheelbarrows. Stop trying to do what's been done. Home automation is an incredible idea, use it for something incredible, something compelling, something we can't do now. Remember computers did not succeed because they did the same thing as typewriters, ledger-books, paintbrushes, and board games. They became ubiquitous because they let you do things you could not do with the old systems. Home automation is the same. The technology is great, it's the ideas of what to do with it that are lacking.