Remember MP3 players? Probably not. They were often hard to use, with too many buttons, different standards of compression and bit rates, buggy and hard-to-use software and even some questionable legality. Then Apple introduced the iPod and suddenly everything changed. The device was elegant, iTunes was pretty good at talking to it, it was all legal, everything was easy to use and pretty to look at.
The smart home is at that pre-iPod stage right now, with devices using different formats for connection, terrible interface design (let me tell you about my smart TV) and complex setups. It’s still at the nerd level, and people are having trouble figuring out what it can do for them, let alone going through the process of setting everything up. Some systems had significant failures. Take Wink, for example, the connected home spinoff that almost brought down its parent company, Quirky.
As Geoffrey Fowler noted in the Wall Street Journal last year, “Hobbyists will enjoy tinkering with these systems, but for anybody else who cares about their marriages, children and sanity, my recommendation is to wait.”
What a lot of people have been waiting for, including me, is the Apple HomeKit. When I started writing about the smart home on MNN back in January, the release was expected momentarily, with the release of the latest OS. It finally sort of dribbled out in late June, with just a few devices available at the time: some switched outlets and lights and a few other devices that made you wonder what the big deal about the smart home was all about in the first place. So where is everything?
It turns out that Apple is again being a control freak, like the company has been with apps for the phone. Kieren McCarthy writes in the Register:
Apple is forcing internet-of-things companies to fit Apple-certified chips and firmware in their gadgets if they are to work with the HomeKit platform. That means, in a lot of cases, engineers must effectively redesign their products to incorporate the mandatory HomeKit chips and firmware, and pass Apple’s strict checklist of requirements.
This was evidently a last-minute overhaul of Apple’s approach to security. Apple is also demanding that everything run through its hubs, like the Apple TV, on WiFi, which uses more power than Bluetooth or other low-energy systems. A lot of manufacturers and customers are complaining, but as McCarthy notes, there's a flip side to this story.
When it comes to the smart home 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.
Apple has designed a system that is built around seriously high-level encryption; even Apple cannot tell where the data is coming from. It's also pretty good at designing a user interface that is easy to use, although my recent experiences with the Apple Watch indicate that they might be losing it.
However Apple’s approach to security and privacy, while it may have delayed HomeKit’s launch, is going to make a lot of people more comfortable with the idea of the smart home. The alternative is Google’s more open approach, which will let Internet-connected devices talk to each other, and to Google, whose whole raison d’être is to collect information about its customers.
In a speech in June, Apple CEO Tim Cook complained about competitors’ attitudes toward security and privacy:
I’m speaking to you from Silicon Valley, where some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information. They’re gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it. We think that’s wrong. And it’s not the kind of company that Apple wants to be.
If we have to wait a little longer to make sure that HomeKit devices are secure right out of the gate, it’s worth it.
Related on MNN and TreeHugger:
- Will a smart home make you fat?
- How will the smart home change the way we live?
- Is your smart home safe or has it become an evil botnet?