Apple's chip, firmware security demands behind HomeKit delays

iGiant expands control-freak tendencies into smarthomes, forcing hardware redesigns

Unhappy customers

The delay and the reasons behind it have already caused customers to complain. Having spent hundreds of dollars on equipment that they had assumed would be HomeKit-capable through a software upgrade, customers were not happy when they discovered they would have to buy a whole new product for it to work with HomeKit.

The manufacturers claim they were unable to warn customers in advance because of the strict terms of Apple's non-disclosure agreement.

The flip-side

All that said, no one is walking away from Apple for three simple reasons:

  1. Everyone agrees that security is vital.
  2. Apple has a huge profile and massive installed base of users.
  3. Apple continues to excel at user interfaces.

When it comes to the smarthome products and the internet of things, consumers always quote the same two main concerns: security and privacy.

The worst-case scenario is a smart lock that someone hacks into and simply opens your front door. But people are also justifiably concerned about strangers knowing their sleeping habits, when they are in or out the house, and the whole wealth of personal data that these devices will produce.

All smarthome products have some degree of encryption, and most send data to the cloud in order to process it and make it available to people's smartphones. The problem is that many of these companies have limited experience in security, and so could be easy targets.

Apple took a look at all the companies asking for HomeKit certification, and became worried at the security gap. And so it decided that it would apply its not-inconsiderable skills on that front and force everything through its hardware with high-level encryption – to the point where not even Apple is able to discern what the data is.

As such, Apple is banking on being able to say: "Our HomeKit products are secure." And that's why it has risked the ire of its partners to up-end its security approach and force them to jump through hoops: because getting it right at the start is essential. It may also come as a relief to some companies that do not want to build their own cloud services or encryption systems, and would rather focus on the core functioning of their product.

When it comes to users, Apple has hundreds of millions. And that means billions of dollars in sales. Smarthome companies complain that their biggest issue (apart from cost) is getting into people's homes. When a company like Apple ties you into its eco-system, the doors open in a way that almost no other company is able to achieve. And for that, manufacturers are willing to make a series of trade-offs.

And then, of course, there is the fact that Apple gives people great user interfaces. Already the screengrabs of HomeKit apps show a clarity and simplicity that Apple is renowned for. As people add more and more smarthome devices, it needs to be manageable and understandable rather than increasingly cluttered.

Plus, Apple will let people use its voice-recognition software Siri to interact with the system. For many devices, you will be able to give a device a name - like, say, "kettle" for a smart-socket connected to an electric kettle. So saying "turn on, kettle" into your iPhone would result in your kettle turning on.

The vision

Apple hopes to become the platform for your home IoT devices. Its vision is that you have an Apple app on your Apple phone, watch or tablet through which you can access all sorts of gadgets: thermostats, lights, locks, window shades, security systems, power sockets, and future sensors and products that come down the line.

The idea is compelling but its approach also pushes Apple's HomeKit into the powered device segment of the smart-tech market. And that is good news for the only other company that has as high a profile in this market: Nest.

In order to bridge the powered and non-powered divide, the Nest has a big battery which it powers by 'sipping' small amounts of electricity from your mains supply. Nest just updated its product line, with the battery-powered Protect and a new NestCam smart webcam. The three products interact with one another in useful ways, and are largely adopting an open approach when it comes to protocols and standards.

Nest is owned by Google, and Google is devising its own platform that is focused on low-power networking and data sharing. Google will also not require you to sign up to the Apple eco-system.

By introducing mandatory HomeKit chipsets, and adding several layers of certification, Apple risks forcing companies into either picking a side or putting out two different product lines: one for HomeKit and one using a more open system.

Only two things are certain: one, the market is going to expand rapidly in the next few years; and two, how the market shakes out will inevitably come down to sales. Beyond that, it's anyone's guess.

Apple declined to comment. ®

In light of new information, this article was updated after publication to clarify the requirements of AppleTV and iCloud with HomeKit. – ed.

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