Last week, at the Apple Worldwide Developer’s Conference, the company surprised us with some new HomeKit features that could have big implications for the entire smart home. The features double down on privacy and security while also making business a little bit tougher for device manufacturers.
Apple announced four things that intrigued me as an IoT reporter. In the smart home, it said that it would provide secure cloud storage for some HomeKit-enabled video cameras, work with router makers to section off IoT devices on the home network, and deepen support for Shortcuts in iOS 13, including for home automations. It also said it would allow users to find offline Apple devices, which to my ears sounds like the beginning of a deep and effective tracking network.
Starting with the smart home news, Apple’s broadening of support for Shortcuts is a welcome change for power users. Shortcuts lets Apple users create automations around the home on software that runs on their iOS devices. Users of the next generation of iOS will no longer have a separate download for the Shortcuts app; it will become part of the regular OS, which ties into basic services such as Bluetooth and geolocation.
The deeper functionality means Shortcuts can be tied to actions outside of a Siri command or a button tap. A shortcut associated with hopping onto your Wi-Fi network could turn on lights, change the thermostat, and start playing your favorite songs. Turning off your alarm in the morning, meanwhile, could trigger a good morning shortcut that turns on your coffee maker and lights.
This is incredibly powerful functionality, but it’s unclear if many general users will adopt it. As has always been the case with the smart home, most people aren’t inclined to spend time thinking through these highly detailed use cases. “I still don’t think it’s super accessible to normal people trying to get things done,” says Adam Justice, CEO of ConnectSense, a smart home device company. “It is definitely power user stuff.”
He does think that developers will be able to put more intuitive commands and shortcuts into their apps to create a better user experience thanks to the change in Shortcut functionality. For his company’s connected outlets, however, he’s not sure if it makes sense yet. As he noted, “Anything we do that’s Shortcut-related would have to add value to our hardware.”
Still, I know that many of y’all reading this will be excited to play. I can’t wait to see what people do and if it gets them to buy more connected devices.
The second HomeKit news item worth a discussion is that Apple will work with Eero, Linksys, and cable company Spectrum to let users wall off connected devices from the internet using their routers. Based on a series of tweets from one of the creators of the HomeBridge software, the Apple-enabled routers will allow users to select from three options: Restrict to Home, Automatic, and No Restrictions.
Restrict to Home means that HomeKit-enabled accessories will only be able to talk to devices in the home network. This is great for local control but bad for cloud-to-cloud integrations. It will also make it impossible to communicate directly with Android phones, which means things like geofencing won’t work. You can also expect a lag for video displaying on the phone as it will have to go over the cellular network.
The Automatic setting will allow HomeKit accessories to talk to the home hub, local HomeKit accessories, and approved services on the web. I’m going to assume the automatic setting will have to be enabled if you want to use Alexa, for example. And No Restrictions means just that; you can select each option for all of your accessories. Which is good for the end user, especially for those living in all-iPhone homes, but it will make support for connected devices a little bit trickier.
Also on the security front, Apple said it would launch a secure video service that keeps video recorded from participating cameras locally or stores it for 10 days on Apple’s cloud. Camera companies have to put the HomeKit Secure Video API on their devices, and so far, Netatmo, Logitech, and Eufy have said they will have such cameras.
There are two elements that intrigue me here. The first is that this service will undercut an important source of continuing revenue for camera makers. Most charge a monthly fee for cloud storage and access to the video after a small period of time. So far, Netatmo and Eufy, two of the three companies offering to support the HomeKit Secure Video API don’t have such fees. Logitech will support HomeKit Secure Video, but does have a subscription service for storing video beyond 24 hours.
Also intriguing is that with this service Apple is turning the HomePod, Apple TV, and iPads that will act as home hubs into video analytics devices, capable of performing the calculations required for computer vision. I assume we’ll see more robust hardware for the home hubs; I also assume it means that Apple is moving quickly to the type of algorithms that will be able to deliver the locally-based context that is necessary for a truly smart home. Google is moving in this direction, too, and I wonder if Amazon will start making announcements geared toward local control at its fall device event.
The final Apple news bit that’s worth noting for the internet of things has nothing to do with HomeKit. Apple said that Find My Phone would now work on all Apple devices, even when offline. It will do this by constantly transmitting a Bluetooth signal that nearby iPhones or Macbooks owned by strangers can pick up. The stranger’s device will then share their location and that they found the device with Apple. Apple can then share the location of the lost or stolen item with the person who lost it.
The privacy implications are huge here. I will direct you to Johns Hopkins’ cryptography professor Matthew Green, who has an excellent explainer on how Apple may have solved the privacy issue to detail that. I’m more interested in how Apple, with this technology, could soon provide a location-aware network that allows people to track items around the world incredibly effectively.
I’ve discussed in the past how companies such as Tile and Nodle are trying to build up a large network of users to essentially create a peer-to-peer Bluetooth-based network that could rival cellular and GPS. In Tile’s case, the software on your phone that a user downloads when they buy a Tile is what helps find other Tiled gear. If you are in a rural area where there are just a few Tile owners, then there’s a much longer window before you’re notified of your item’s location.
Nodle tries to entice users to join the network using a blockchain-based token as well as payments for people who join and find items. Another startup, Helium, is trying to figure out how to securely certify users and devices on an ad hoc peer-to-peer network for the internet of things. For a company trying to replicate what Apple is doing, Helium and its tech might make a good acquisition target.
So while Apple doesn’t talk about the internet of things, this week it made four announcements that will have pretty significant impacts on it.
Updated: This story was corrected on June 10, 2019 to reflect the fact that Logitech does offer a camera subscription service.