Technology

How Apple’s HomeKit works, and where it fits in the Internet of Things: Control Shift

Andrew Sadauskas /

In a keynote to Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) earlier this week, Apple chief executive Tim Cook made a number of big product announcements.

Aside from unveiling the latest version of Mac OS-X and iOS8, the keynote gave the world its first glimpses of the notoriously secretive tech giant’s Internet of Things (IoT) strategy.

The strategy is built around a package for developers called HomeKit, which is made up of a set of protocols designed to control how smart appliances and embedded devices interact with Apple’s devices, as well as an API (application programming interface) that will allow third-party app developers to control and configure those ‘smart’ devices.

Apple also announced that HomeKit will also be able to be controlled by Siri, meaning telling Siri to “switch out the lights” will lead to any smart lights in your home switching off.

Last week in Control Shift, I discussed the implications of the IoT trend for businesses. So how does Apple’s HomeKit work and how does it fit?

What we know about HomeKit so far

Here’s what we know so far about how HomeKit works.

Under HomeKit, your smart appliances are known as “accessories” so, for example, a garage door opener is an accessory.

Each of the things a home appliance can do is known as a “service”, so opening or closing the garage door would be two services available for your garage door opener.

In turn, each of your accessories is grouped by which room of your house it’s in. So your garage door would appear to app developers as being in a separate room to your microwave, washing machine or TV set.

Optionally, rooms can be grouped into zones, so you might choose to place your bedroom in an “upstairs” zone, your kitchen might be in a “downstairs” zone, and your garage might be in an “outdoor” zone.

Finally, for those who are so lucky, you can have multiple homes set up, each with their own separate accessories, services, rooms and zones. For example, you might make your principle residence your “home” and then set up a holiday house or guest house as a second “home”.

As you’ve probably already noticed based on this description, HomeKit is very much aimed at the domestic, home automation end of the market. If you will, the “controlling your fridge or toaster over the internet” end of the market.

What it does not appear to be aimed at is the enterprise end of the market, otherwise known as the “industrial internet of things”.

At least at this stage, you will not manage your truck depot or collect real-time GPS data using HomeKit. You will not remotely control your automated factory using HomeKit. Nor will you collect real-time data from your fleet of vending machines in three states using HomeKit.

In these industrial use cases, your business will need an industrial IoT system, such as Microsoft’s Azure Intelligent Systems Service platform or Cisco’s Industrial Smart Solution, rather than a home automation system such as HomeKit.

A few other observations about HomeKit

There are a couple of other interesting things to note about HomeKit.

The first is that Apple did not announce its own embedded operating system to go along with HomeKit. That means that appliance makers will need to rely on something else – such as BlackBerry’s QNX, embedded Linux, Windows for Smaller Footprint Devices or even Android – as an operating system for their devices.

The second interesting thing is that Apple traditionally has been a company that has relied on owning the whole hardware and software stack (for example, it makes both iOS and your iPhone), while its rivals (Windows on the desktop or Android on smartphones) just create software, or just manufacture hardware.

Apple’s HomeKit will see it compete head-to-head against rival home automation platforms from Samsung and LG. In this case, Apple will just create the software while someone else will make the appliances, while Samsung and LG will own the whole appliance-and-software stack.

How this battle will play out will be interesting to watch.

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Andrew Sadauskas

Andrew Sadauskas is a former journalist at SmartCompany and a former editor of TechCompany.

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