Apple HomeKit: Everything you need to know about the smart home platform

This is Apple's vision for your connected smart home of the future
Apple HomeKit essential guide

HomeKit is the foundation of Apple's vision for our smart home future, a set of interconnecting apps and devices that control lighting, heating and the cycles of your washing machine.

But HomeKit isn't actually a physical product you can go out and buy – it's a technology platform aimed at developers and manufacturers.

In other words, you can't buy HomeKit, but you can buy HomeKit-compatible gadgets. Right now, the selection of devices available is steadily growing and currently includes the likes of Philips, Elgato and Honeywell D-Link and Netatmo. In the coming years, you're going to be hearing a lot more about HomeKit.

You control HomeKit devices with the all-new Apple Home app, which arrived with iOS 10.

Here's our primer to make sure you stay in the loop with everything that's happening.

What is HomeKit?

what is apple homekit

HomeKit is a "robust framework" and a "common protocol" in the words of Apple; it was released to the world as part of iOS 8 back in June 2014. It's an API – an Application Programming Interface – that enables smart home devices to work seamlessly with iOS running on an iPhone or iPad.

That may not mean much to consumers, but if you're the manufacturer of a smart lock or a smart lamp you can get the HomeKit code off Apple and make your device compatible. If Apple can persuade enough manufacturers to do this, the iPhone (or the Apple TV) could become the central hub for your entire house.

One big change Apple has made that could smoothen the entire HomeKit process is the introduction of a native Home app. Home creates a central hub where all HomeKit devices can be controlled. It also introduces a new Scenes feature that will enable you to combine devices to work together at different times of the day. So at night, it'll lock the doors, lower the lights and turn the heating down.

There are a couple of benefits to having one standard for smart home devices: first of all, you don't have to mess around with one app for your lights, one app for your heating, and another app for your garage door, and you can manage devices from multiple manufacturers simultaneously. Secondly, security and communication are handled using one fixed standard, which should make for safer and more reliable operation.

But not everyone will necessarily want to sign up to Apple's way of thinking and working. Google and Samsung have their own smart home protocols, and at this early stage of the game it's not clear just how much interoperability there's going to be. In future years you may have to choose your smart home OS as well as your smartphone OS.

How does it work?

what is apple homekit

Without going too far into the technical details of HomeKit, it offers a common language for smart home devices to talk to each other and to Apple hardware – it's like all these devices learning German or French so they can work together. The only question is how many people Apple can convince to take the lessons.

Deck out your living space with HomeKit-compatible goodies, and once you tell Siri you're going to bed, the app could lock the doors, dim the lights and turn down the thermostat. Being able to control multiple bits of kit from one central point is a key advantage of having a single API like HomeKit controlling everything.

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If HomeKit can tell everything in the house that you're getting up, that's a lot easier than working your way through five or six separate apps every morning. HomeKit is also able to split your house and your gadgets into separate zones, another feature developers and manufacturers can take advantage of.

Once you buy a gadget with "Works with Apple HomeKit" on the packaging, you can head to the App Store to find the relevant app. Then all you need to do is run through a quick pairing process and you should be securely connected to the smart home device of your choice.

When can you get your hands on it?

apple homekit guide

As we've already intimated, there's already a fair amount of HomeKit-compatible hardware out there and walking into an Apple Store is perhaps the best way of finding it. There's also a current list on the Apple website.

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It's still very much a work in progress though, and the progress isn't as speedy as Apple might like - essentially companies are waiting to see how the market matures before committing time and energy to supporting one of the fledgling protocol formats.

Kit from rivals, like the Google-built Nest and the Samsung Smart Fridge, may eventually be made HomeKit-compatible using some kind of bridge device, but again we don't know for sure. It's a question of watching this space as far as availability and compatibility is concerned, though a new Apple TV (with extra HomeKit capabilities) may be imminent and would speed up the process.

What's the potential?

what is apple homekit

Will the Apple TV become the centre of your HomeKit experience?

We've hinted at how HomeKit can be used in practice, and the potential is virtually limitless – the API and associated code includes everything necessary for you to sit on the sofa and control your home using an iPhone. The iOS aspect is crucial though, and if you're an Android or Windows lover then it might never cross your radar – it depends how nicely the big manufacturers play together in the months and years to come.

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Ultimately it gives disparate devices the ability to communicate, so once the door's locked your lights will go off automatically (assuming you're leaving rather than coming in). Or, you could have a motion sensor from one manufacturer switch on a security camera from a different manufacturer, giving Siri orders all the while.

Remote access is important too – letting you control kit from anywhere you have an Internet connection, so you can tune into a security feed from the office or check the lights are off from the other side of the world.


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2 Comments

  • mitsumaui says:

    HomeKit has some promise, but has a ways to go before it can become a useful automation platform. 

    One of the things that surprises me the most about most of these 'smart' devices, is how we are expected to interact with them. A true Home Automation platform should be programmable in such a way that those actions are indeed automated. i.e. when I get home and it's dark - switch the lights on, when the wife gets home between 3-6 switch the TV on. 

    HomeKit is very much centred around you telling it what to do. Yes scenes etc are there for when you want to group tasks together (i.e. movie mode etc) - but you still have to request it. There's a lack of capability when it comes to it becoming a self sustained eco system. I.e. it currently does not have any way to base on daylight / sunset. 

    Anyhow - the real reason for writing this. If you are like me - desperate to see what HomeKit can do for you with some existing automation systems, and don't like throwing money into a pit for what limited HomeKit devices are out there, check out homebridge. It's a fantastic platform which with a little work (took me all of 2 hours to setup) can integrate with a huge list of things such as Logitech Harmony, Denon / Marrantz AVR, Telldus, zWave, etc etc. I have HomeKit controlling all of my Home Automation from iOS - now just need to make it more more autonomous!

  • gsiot says:

    Small correction: "you can get the HomeKit code off Apple and make your device compatible" is not quite true. Apple provides the specification of its HomeKit Accessory Protocol (HAP), but a device manufacturer needs to obtain the code that implements HAP - a so-called HomeKit SDK - from somewhere else. A HomeKit SDK may be provided by a chip company (e.g. this one from Nordic Semiconductor: https://www.nordicsemi.com/eng/Products/Bluetooth-low-energy/nRF5-SDK-for-HomeKit) or by a specialized company like ours (http://oberonhap.com).

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