Like many others, I watched Apple’s WWDC 2021 keynote on Monday. Unlike most of those viewers though, I was impatient for any HomeKit news. It was worth the wait until late in the keynote to hear about HomeKit because Apple is pushing forward with the new Matter standard and opening up HomeKit in a big way.
The upcoming iOS 15 software update will bring Matter support. Considering the developer beta for iOS 15 is already available and a public beta starts in July, that means Matter is almost here for HomeKit.
Last month, Google announced vague device support for Matter coming later this year. And Amazon? I haven’t heard a peep from Amazon about Matter. And that’s a shame because of what the standard will bring to the smart home: The ability to use just about any device for a smart home ecosystem with any other ecosystem.
To that end, I’ve spoken with industry sources confirming that the Apple Home will indeed show and work with non-HomeKit devices. Even better, I’ve heard that devices with Matter support won’t need to be certified as HomeKit devices for this to work.
I had concerns about this being a potential roadblock to getting non-HomeKit connected bulbs, sensors, and locks to work with HomeKit using Matter. From what I’ve heard so far, that concern is generally unfounded, which is great news! Indeed, Apple even noted that much of the HomeKit code it open-sourced in 2019 contributed to the development of Matter.
But not all is as “open” in HomeKit-land. Apple surprised many by allowing device makers to integrate Siri into future hardware with microphones and speakers. During the event, Apple even showed an Ecobee thermostat with such a configuration. Note that this was unofficial as Ecobee hasn’t announced a new model.
Any of these Siri-enabled devices are considered “HomeKit accessories”, suggesting that they’ll need to be certified for HomeKit. That makes sense because Apple is the sole developer of Siri and its capabilities. But it will add an extra step for device makers for the certification process. I’d expect most of the current HomeKit device vendors to adopt Siri far faster than companies that aren’t in the HomeKit market yet.
As much as I’d like to have seen Apple introduce a “HomePad” smart display (think always plugged in iPad with a speaker base), the company didn’t do that. In fact, based on what Apple did announce, I don’t think it will ever create such a screen. Let me explain.
Apple sees the smart home interface much as Amazon and Google do: You use it through displays and your voice. The difference with Apple is that it wants the display interface with you at all times. So instead of a stationary smart display, you interact with your Home on the Apple Watch, an iPhone or an iPad.
The interface scales along with whatever size display you have. The Home app is also available when you’re not moving around too: You can use the Home app on a Mac computer or an Apple TV. And you can pepper your home with HomePod mini speakers to supplement voice interaction locations.
So my take is that Apple considers all of its bases covered without a traditional smart display. And interestingly, instead of offering one smart display to support a family of users, it will sell you screens for each user in a family via the Apple Watch, iPad, and iPhone. There’s more revenue potential to keep the smart home screen separated.
Across all these devices, the Home app is getting some nice value-add upgrades. Instead of viewing a single HomeKit camera feed on an Apple TV, (like the new model I recently reviewed) for example, you’ll be able to view multiple cameras later this fall.
Home on the Apple Watch will surface more important home controls and statuses based on context; that means less scrolling or turning the watch’s digital crown. Package detection is arriving later this year for HomeKit cameras. And using on-device intelligence, Apple says the Apple TV will show controls for nearby available devices, offering a pseudo-presence experience.
That last bit is super important: Apple is moving Siri from a cloud-based service to a local processing state. That means no audio to the cloud from your Apple and HomeKit devices when controlling your devices. We’ve been harping on the need and benefits for localizing language processing in the smart home for ages now. I really thought Google would be the first to have a widespread rollout of this privacy-centric approach, but it’s going to be Apple.
All of that processing will be done using the compute power of your HomeKit hub, which can be an Apple TV, HomePod mini, or a plugged-in iPad. And the chips inside each of these have far more capability than the silicon inside smart speakers and displays from either Google or Amazon.
Apple is also moving faster when it comes to using the device you carry or wear for local access control. The company already has support for CarKey with new BMW vehicles so you don’t have to carry a physical key for the vehicle. This year Apple is expanding to your home and work keys too. Working with a large number of lock makers, iOS 15 will add support for unlocking a door by holding your iPhone or Apple Watch near a lock.
You will very likely need new hardware on your door for this because Apple is using NFC to access the lock controls. I can’t think of but a few currently available mainstream smart locks that include an NFC radio. So it’s a bit of a bummer to have to buy a new lock to get this feature.
I’m glad I didn’t upgrade my own smart lock as I transition to HomeKit. I’ll wait for some NFC-enabled options that work with the secure enclave of my iPhone and Apple Watch. The good news is you won’t need a new iPhone that has Apple’s U1 ultrawideband chip for these locks.
Overall, Apple has gone from HomeKit being an “also-ran” ecosystem to a potential leader in this space. It’s doing that without competing smart displays and with a privacy focus using local processing. Plus, thanks to support for Matter, the availability of devices that work with Apple Home is about to grow by leaps and bounds.
It often takes time for Apple to catch up with competitors in a market, but by playing the long game, it usually pays off. And that’s what WWDC 2021 has shown me: the HomeKit approach is about to pay off.