Apple's HomeKit - What is it?

Apple unveiled HomeKit at their WWDC 2014 last June, and it's taken almost a full year for manufacturers to release their first batch of Apple-approved products. What is HomeKit, what can it do and how does it work?

HomeKit is Apple's framework for home automation. It's a new standard for allowing devices to configure and control the Internet of Things. With it, you can control a myriad of devices including home security systems, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), lights and speakers, for example.

Home automation has been around for a long time - the first example dates back to 1966, though real progress has only been made in the last two decades with the rise of the Internet and wireless communication.

Home automation as it stands today has many problems, preventing many people from installing such a system. As with DLNA (click here for more information), there's heavy competition between different vendors, huge incompatibility problems because of all the different communication standards used and a large expense in laying the cables and wiring to interconnect these devices. Because of this, home automation has mainly been limited to ambitious hobbyists or the wealthy.

Apple has the power to change all of this, however. Using the home's wireless network as a means of control and communication, the biggest problem with home automation - the integration of the system - is solved. HomeKit devices will simply connect to your local network using Wi-Fi to be controlled by a remote. The next big hurdle is incompatibility, which Apple has also solved. As with almost all of Apple's products, HomeKit is tied to their own ecosystem. By limiting the devices that can control HomeKit (iPhones, iPads and the Apple TV - more on this later) and a very strict approval process for HomeKit devices, Apple has full control over any bugs that may arise before a product is launched. With HomeKit, you get Apple's famous security, guaranteed compatibility and an easy way of controlling accessories.

Made For iPhone

The Made For iPhone (MFI) HomeKit program was launched back in November 2014. MFI is the true driving force behind HomeKit. Device manufacturers must submit their plans and prototype to Apple for MFI approval - this process involves rigorous testing and quality control, ensuring the device follows all of Apple's API (application program interface - the way the device integrates HomeKit) guidelines. These guidelines include what the device can and cannot do, how the device communicates and security encryption.

Once the device passes the approval process, a certification number is given and the manufacturer can place MFI logos on marketing and packaging. The MFI logo makes it easier for consumers to spot devices that are fully compatible with HomeKit. The certification number allows users to spot fakes - if a suspicious device has the MFI logo, users can look up the certification number to make sure the device isn't a knock-off. MFI-certified devices will also likely be promoted in Apple's online shop and in Apple Stores.

So what can I do with HomeKit?

HomeKit is a form of home automation. As the name implies, you can control any HomeKit-compatible devices with your iPhone. You can assign specific actions to devices, or group multiple actions into one command. These commands also work through Siri - for example, saying "lock down" would cause HomeKit-compatible devices to turn off any electric devices including lights, lock the front door, shut the garage door and arm the alarm.

Actions can also be set to a schedule - you can ensure your water heater turns on at 5AM, your music wakes you at 7AM and your coffee is ready after your 7.15AM shower. Not only is this convenient, but it can help save electricity as well.

How does HomeKit work?

HomeKit uses a database with all the characteristics of your home stored in your device's iOS. This means any HomeKit-enabled apps will all request the same information. Your home names, room names, accessory names and accessory settings will be the same no matter which app you use.

The Home Manager, obviously, lets you manage your "Homes". Homes are made up of "Rooms", under which you can assign "Accessories". Rooms can also be grouped into "Zones". A Room can also be assigned to more than one Zone. Each Accessory has it's own list of "Services", which are essentially their actions.

You can have more than one Home, such as your permanent home and a holiday home. Each Home has to have a unique name so you and Siri don't get confused.

Rooms also have to have unique names, but only within a Home. For example, your permanent home cannot have two "Main Bedroom". However, your permanent home and vacation home can both have one "Main Bedroom" each.

Zones also need unique names in each Home. You could assign upstairs Rooms to a Zone called "Upstairs" and the ground floor Rooms to a Zone called "Downstairs". Any Rooms in the "Downstairs" Zone can then be assigned into another Zone, such as "Kitchen", for example.

Your Accessories are the actual physical devices that connect to your iPhone, iPad or Apple TV. They can be speakers, locks, lights, etc. Accessories also require unique names in each Home, so you can target them directly with Siri.

Your accessories' Services are what your accessory can do. A lightbulb, for example, can light up or turn the light off - this is a Service. Each Service needs a unique name as well. Services only need names if they're going to be used with Siri. You can still navigate an App to activate any Service.

Services can also be grouped into "Service Groups". Similar to Rooms, this allows you to control a bunch of accessories at once.

How do I control HomeKit?

Apple recently updated their HomeKit support document. You'll be able to download an app for each of your HomeKit accessories. The accessories comes with a serial code, which must be entered into the app to successfully pair the iPhone or iPad with the accessory.

Once paired, you can use the app to control the accessory, or use Siri. A command such as "turn off lights in the living room" would scan the database for any accessories called "Lights", then any Rooms or Zones called "Living Room", thus turning off your living room lights.

Can I control devices when I'm out and about?

Yes! Using an Apple TV running at least version 7.0 (Generation 3 Apple TVs or later), you can control any HomeKit accessories by logging into your Apple ID on both your iPhone or iPad and the Apple TV. Any Siri commands will then function as if you were inside the house.

This confirms our thoughts in yesterday's article about Apple's WWDC 2015, where we wrote that we're expecting an updated Apple TV.

Where can I buy HomeKit-compatible accessories?

It's been an entire year since Apple introduced HomeKit at WWDC 2014. Since then, Apple hasn't allowed any HomeKit devices to hit the market. Apple finally gave manufacturers the green light, and the first 5 HomeKit accessories are here!


1. Insteon Hub
The Insteon Hub acts as a central hub for your HomeKit devices, similar to what the Apple TV will do. You can quickly and easily add devices to your network, create and manage Homes, Rooms and Zones and adjust any accessories' settings. You also get a cool dashboard view so you know exactly what your home is doing at all times.


2. ecobee3 Wi-Fi Thermostat
The ecobee3 lets you measure temperatures all over your Home, thanks to multiple remote sensors. You can also set the ecobee3 to trigger your accessories' Services, based on temperature thresholds.


3. iHome iSP5 Smart Plug
This Smart Plug comes from iHome - you plug your appliance into the adapter, which then plugs into your wall's power socket. The iSP5 Smart Plug can then be turned on or off, powering down the appliance as well. Multiple Smart Plugs can be grouped together to control entire Rooms at a time. The Smart Plug also supports Siri commands.


4. Caséta Wireless Lighting Kit
The Caséta Wireless Starter Kit from Lutron includes a Caséta Wireless Smart Bridge which connects to the included Lutron lightbulbs letting you turn them on or off. The Smart Bridge also supports the Lutron Serena shades.


5. Elgato Eve
The Elgato Eve family of devices consists of a range of smart sensors, such as the Eve Energy, Eve Door & Window, Eve Room and Eve Weather sensors. Eve Energy measures how much energy your household applicants are using. Eve Door & Window tells you if any doors or windows are open and for how long. Eve Room measures air quality, humidity and temperature thanks to its sensor capable of detecting VOC (volatile organic compounds). Eve Weather monitors the weather, including air pressure and outside temperature.

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