Home Automation May Soon Get a Lot Simpler Thanks to This New Alliance

Bluetooth Mesh Networking Expected to Revolutionize HomeKit and More Credit: MacRumors
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Apple’s HomeKit is a great home automation solution — it’s the most secure, offers some of the most advanced automation features, and it’s tightly integrated with Apple’s products and services like the iPhone, iPad, and Siri. However, it’s been somewhat held back by the limited number and range of home automation accessories that can be tied into it.

The main problem with home automation solutions today is that there’s no modern open standard, so each manufacturer has developed its own proprietary system, and smart home accessory makers have to specifically include support for each system that they want their products to work with. Consumers also tend to get locked in after buying into one of the systems, reducing their options should they want to go in a different direction in the future.

Since Apple has such a strong focus on privacy and security, accessories that work with HomeKit have to pass the company’s own rigorous MFI certification process, and until recently also had to incorporate a special Apple encryption chip. This meant that HomeKit support had a much higher bar of entry for manufacturers than rival home automation services like Amazon Alexa, which allowed support for the voice assistant to be added with a few lines of software code. Along the same lines, Apple’s own pricey HomePod is the only smart speaker that can be easily used to control HomeKit accessories, as compared to Amazon’s Echo Dot and Google’s Home Mini, both of which allow for a much lower cost of entry into voice-controlled home automation.

Fortunately, this looks like it could soon change if a new alliance of the current giants in the smart home ecosystem succeeds. Apple announced today that it’s now part of a working group known as Project Connected Home over IP in which it will join forces with Amazon, Google, and the Zigbee Alliance to develop an open standard for smart home devices that will greatly simplify things for device manufacturers and offer consumers true freedom of choice among products and platforms.

A New Open Standard for Home Automation

Apple, Amazon, and Google are the driving forces behind the three major smart home automation platforms today, while the Zigbee Alliance is made up of a long list of smart home device manufacturers as board members, including IKEA, Samsung SmartThings, NXP Semiconductors, Philips (now known as Signify), and many others — all of whom will be part of the working group and making their own contributions to the project.

Apple notes that security will be a “fundamental design tenet” of the new standard, which aims to make things easier for device manufacturers, who will only need to support a single standard, as well as increasing compatibility for consumers, who won’t need to worry about being locked into a specific home automation solution.

The project aims to use the standard Internet Protocol (IP) as the communications layer, supporting both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Low Energy, so it will leverage existing technologies rather than creating new ones. The group also hopes to eliminate the need for bridges, with all compliant devices able to connect directly to the IP-based home automation network, rather than using proprietary wireless protocols like Philips Hue and Lutron Caséta currently do.

The industry working group also promises that the new unified protocol will take an open-source approach, allowing more widespread contributions to the project as well as ensuring that vendors can adopt the protocol without needing to pay licensing fees.

What This Means for You

The end result of this project will hopefully be to eliminate the “silos” that currently exist in home automation systems that force users to choose between platforms and then get locked in as they accumulate accessories that only work with that standard.

Ultimately, however, this is probably the best news for HomeKit users, as Apple’s platform stands to benefit the most from the wealth of accessories that will suddenly gain HomeKit compatibility as they adopt the new unified standard. By even the most generous estimates, there are less than 300 accessories that are supported by HomeKit, while Google supports well over 5,000 and Amazon boasts more than 12,000 devices that are compatible with its Alexa Smart Home platform.

Apple’s HomeKit support is also relatively narrow right now when compared with Amazon Alexa, which offers a much wider range of compatible devices — everything from lights and door locks to ovens, refrigerators, and coffee makers. Of course, Apple will have to add support for these classes of devices to the HomeKit framework itself — probably as part of a major iOS update — but presumably it would be doing this as part of its contributions to the working group.

Apple users who have been reluctant to go with HomeKit because of the lack of accessory compatibility will also now be more easily able to get into HomeKit, which offers much more advanced automation capabilities as compared to the other platforms.

Ultimately, when the dust settles, any home automation device that supports the new standard protocol should be able to be controlled regardless of whether you’re using Siri on your iPhone or HomePod, Alexa on an Amazon Echo speaker, or Google Assistant, and in fact you could probably easily mix and match all three in your home if you so desired.

It’s also worth noting that this new standard is going to build upon what Apple, Amazon, and Google already have in place today, and all three companies will continue supporting their own platforms, so if you’ve already invested in a home automation system, nothing should change except that you’ll have many more options to expand in the future.

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