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What it takes to be HomeKit compatible

Industry Musings

Back in 2014, Apple announced HomeKit, signaling their official entry into the connected home space. HomeKit was hailed as a killer app that would make Apple an unstoppable force in their quest to dominate the home. They already had iPhones, iPads, MacBooks, and Apple TVs in millions of homes, and adding support for the burgeoning smart home market would further deepen their reach.

It took a whole year after the announcement for the first HomeKit compatible devices to hit store shelves. This included Ecobee3, which we are working on integrating with as I write this. Despite some big name integrations partners like Ecobee and Lutron, HomeKit-enabled devices have remained few and far between, and it took until September of this year for Apple to release their Home app for managing all of a home’s HomeKit-supported devices.

Since launching the Smart Vent System last year, we have received tons of questions about our support for HomeKit. It is definitely an integration we want to pursue, and we have, but it isn’t as straight forward of a process as some might assume. For this week’s blog post, we wanted to explain how a new products is certified to work with HomeKit, what MFi is, and both the good and not so good of HomeKit integration.

Certification

Courtesy of slate.com

Unlike working with Nest, Ecobee, or SmartThings, integrating with HomeKit is more than just writing software. First, we needed to be certified under the MFi (Made for iPhone/iPod/iPad) licensing program that all would-be Apple compatible products must apply for. MFi is a collection of security specifications and hardware requirements set by Apple that must be met before a third party device can be approved to work with HomeKit or any other Apple software or devices.

There are two types of MFI licenses: the developer license and the manufacturers license. Both parties need this certification to prove that they meet the requirements set by Apple, and Apple routinely audits MFi-certified manufacturing facilities, so it’s rigorous. On top of certification, Apple also requires that developers install a special authentication chip purchased from Apple. This chip provides encryption and authentication used to ensure the device is MFi-certified. In most cases these stipulations only affect the hub or bridge made by the developer, as is the case with us.

What’s great

Courtesy of mashable.com

Despite all of the conveniences smart devices are supposed to afford homeowners, the process of controlling one’s devices isn’t always easier than the old manual mode of control. Take for example a smart light bulb. Where you once had to walk over to a switch and flip it to turn on your lights, you now need to unlock your phone, find the app that corresponds with your lights, open it, and turn on the lights you want, all assuming you have good connectivity. A two step process suddenly became a four step one. For users, HomeKit is a revelation for one key reason: Voice control with Siri. Sure the Home app natively integrates with the iPhone’s menu, but what everyone is really excited about is voice control. Look at how successful Amazon Echo has been! No more searching for apps to turn on your lights, just tell Siri which lights to turn on in which room and watch it happen. No word on Apple's solution to poor connectivity. 

Speaking of users: who doesn’t love working with a familiar interface? Apple has an enormous installed user base with the iPhone and most of them love the familiar iOS UI. With their Home app, Apple built a single place for home-related devices all rolled into the familiar flow and aesthetic iOS users have come to know and love.

For developers, being MFi certified opens up a bunch of doors. From the official certification stamp, to Apple’s over 700 million iPhone users, MFi certification can bring reach and credibility to a smart device developer, but as is often the case, there is a cost.

What’s not so great

Courtesy of http://blog.xojs.org/

Apple's chip. 

Remember that encryption and authentication chip we mentioned? It doesn’t add much for consumers, but it does add a nontrivial cost to manufacturing HomeKit enabled devices, costs that inevitably get passed on to the consumer. The chip isn't cheap and multiplied over hundreds of thousands of units the cost to the developer adds up. To finance future production, the developer will inevitably pass that cost off to the consumer, which may hurt sales of the product. Mostly though, the main concern for small hardware developers like us is the additional development time required to build in Apple's proprietary hardware. This slows the developer's time to market, which has the potential to hurt revenue and customer satisfaction.

Beyond the technical requirements for certification, there is one other not so great aspect of HomeKit as a service: it’s away from home support, or lack thereof. Other smart home hubs let you control devices when you are out of the house, which is useful for geofence-based routines or checking in on appliances you may have left on by accident. However, HomeKit only lets you do this if you have an Apple TV or an iPad at home that you can use as a hub. This feature also only works with fourth generation or newer Apple TVs. We understand why this is –no physical hub like Wink of SmartThings– but it’s not the best experience. Add to that the fact that Siri will soon be able to communicate with any app on an iPhone, and developers may have one less reason to jump in the HomeKit bandwagon.

What is Keen Home doing?

We certainly find the benefits of HomeKit certification attractive both for ourselves and for our community, and we definitely want to work with Apple, but we’re approaching adoption cautiously. Both Keen Home and our manufacturer are already MFi 6.2 licensed, so that’s one less thing on our HomeKit to-do list, but we still have to build the authentication chip into our Smart Bridge. This means redesigning the bridge to incorporate the chip and merchandising a new, more expensive product for HomeKit enthusiasts. If there is enough demand –and there already is a healthy amount– we will definitely release a HomeKit-enabled bridge. Until then, we’ll be tangentially working with HomeKit through integrations with other HomeKit-enabled devices, starting with Ecobee. If you have a Smart Vent System and an Ecobee already and want to get in on our beta program launching this month, click here and fill out the signup form.



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  • Don on

    A lot has changed with the homekit ecosystem since October. The newest iOS versions have much expanded home app functionality and after CES many new homekit products were announced. I think Keen has an opportunity to corner the market with the first homekit enabled smart vent. Even ecobee, a Keen partner, has expanded their own HomeKit compatibility by enabling remote sensors to report to the home app.

  • Don on

    Add me to the list of people extremely interested in your product but will not make a purchase until it is Homekit compatible. The security issues that so many developers complain about are exactly the reason that HomeKit is so important to me. I’m unwilling to compromise security of my home with products that are not compliant with that model. We are seeing too many recent examples of why this level of security in iOT devices is so important.

  • Scott Correll on

    I am very interested in smart vents but will definitely be waiting for a HomeKit-compatible solution presents itself and can be fully integrated with Ecobee, too. I’m more than happy to pay a small premium for the enhanced security and interoperability/ease of use that HomeKit brings consumers.

    Please move aggressively on a HomeKit-based solution; as soon as it’s available, either from you or a competitor, I will be purchasing.

    I don’t have a business crystal ball, but my guess is that the HomeKit product market may behave like the market for VCRs in the early 80s. The more sales of VCRs rose, the more everyone benefitted due to the ubiquitous nature of the product. Only at scale did market stakeholders realize the immense value (at that time) of the hardware and media associated with it. HomeKit could go a similar way…it’s a nascent market right now, but those that get in early will help to grow the market and will be poised to reap great benefits, too. At the same time, it should mean lower prices for consumers while volume-based profits will be there for the taking, from forward-leaning and forward-looking companies.

  • Aaron Wyllie on

    Thank you for taking the time to explain your position on HomeKit. Consider this comment another vote for you to move forward with HomeKit integration in your products. Do not underestimate the importance of allaying the fears of your future customers as they hear of more frequent reports of “hacked” IoT devices in the coming months and years (which will occur.) The average consumer will be looking for a shortcut to determining whether a product is properly secured. For most, that shortcut will be the “HomeKit” logo on the package.

    I will only be purchasing HomeKit compatible products moving forward specifically because of the security features. Thanks for your time.

  • Michael on

    You guys need to bite the bullet on HomeKit. It sounds like whining to say it burdens your COGs. Thay may be true, but security issues alone merit doing this and to say that it doesn’t offer end users any benefit is in ignorance of this basic security fact. Yes, it has take Apple longer to roll this out, but they went back to the drawing board on security when they realized the risk they were asking consumers to take – hence the ‘proprietary’ chip you reference. You’re getting a LOT of requests for HomeKit because early adopters understand the benefits of a fully integrated interoperable solution AND the security merits of encryption on chip. So don’t make this sound like Apple is making things hard for you when you know they are right in taking the approach they are taking. I also think you are making a mistake to develop a separate hub just for HomeKit. You should eat the short term margins and get to volume on a single manufacturing unit so you can amortize your R&D over one SKU. To do otherwise means you are going to constantly revise both hubs when adding future hardware features. Like others, I would have been interested in a whole home solution. But will sit on sidelines until you or your competitors have it.



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