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.