HomeKit, Thread Bring App Dev to the Center of Smart Home Success

Home automation has long been a hallmark of futuristic sci-fi movies and cartoons, but anyone with a garage-door opener intrinsically understands the lure of controlling your home with the push of a button, and could easily imagine using your voice or the scan of an eye to turn your home “on.” While many current devices have one foot in the futuristic home, the recent announcements of networking protocol Thread and Apple’s HomeKit have actually brought us one step closer to realizing our smart home dream. Yet there are still numerous challenges to overcome before developers can take full advantage of the growing smart home market.

From a developer’s perspective, here’s the gist of HomeKit and Thread:

HomeKit is a new framework announced at Apple’s WWDC in June. The framework, which will be integrated into the company’s upcoming iOS 8 release, will let developers build a home automation app without having to deal with a specific piece of hardware at all. On the flip side, hardware manufacturers may integrate more deeply with Apple’s iOS without having to worry about a corresponding app. As things currently stand, any connected device worth the money you spend on it has a corresponding app. If you have five connected devices in your home, odds are good that you have to open up five separate apps to control those devices. HomeKit will let developers create apps that control all of these connected devices via one app that can be controlled via Siri. An “I’m leaving for work” command can lock your doors, close your garage and up the temperature on your air conditioner. Apple has given developers an API to work off of for HomeKit that will allow for a lot of customization down the road.

Thread is a new wireless networking protocol created by the non-profit Thread Group whose seven founding members include Nest, Samsung and Freescale, among other prominent smart home companies. The purpose behind the protocol is to standardize the way smart home devices communicate with each other, the end result being a seamlessly connected home. At first glance, Thread looks promising. The protocol is low power meaning devices using Thread should be capable of running for long periods of time from a single, and long-lasting, battery (think smoke detectors). It utilizes a mesh network, which removes the need to rely on a central access point like Wi-Fi. Thread is also already in millions of Nest thermostats and can be in devices that contain a ZigBee radio with a simple upgrade (though ZigBee devices have their own limitations, specifically the inability to connect to the Internet without a gateway).

While HomeKit and Thread are both promising, there are still some hurdles that developers need to clear before the Jetson’s home becomes a reality. Here are my top three:

Getting Hardware and Software in Sync

Apple’s HomeKit makes it possible for hardware manufacturers to not have to worry about the software side of the smart home and will let software pros focus on what they do best. Each will get to play to their strengths. But this will likely present a conundrum for some manufacturers on the hardware side. With a booming smart home market that is seeing new products and new players on an almost daily basis, one of the key ways for hardware manufacturers to differentiate their product is with the accompanying app. Because the HomeKit API allows any app to control any piece of hardware that meets the MFi specifications, and Thread is also promising a similar level of open interoperability, both protocols will take customers away from the manufacturer’s app. This is going to be a difficult pill for some manufacturers to swallow and may even make a few decide to forego HomeKit and Thread until both are more tested and established.

Red Tape

Thread has already promised it will have a rigorous certification program that will rely on third party testing to ensure quality and interoperability. HomeKit’s certification process is a little more of a gray area right now, but it does look like any device that will be HomeKit compliant will need to be approved by Apple’s MFi program. Traditionally, this is a heavy process that requires an in-depth review of the product. This means there will be a lot of red tape that product manufacturers will need to get through before anything hits the market. Apple’s MFi could prove to be a barrier to entry for some of the scrappier smart home start-ups and will slow down the roll out for those that are unfamiliar with Apple’s MFi process.

What about Wink, Z-Wave, and Insteon? The smart home field is by no means a new market. Juniper Research estimated that the smart home market was worth $33 billion in 2013. There are already millions of connected products in homes today from light bulbs and refrigerators to garage door openers and locks. There are also a number of initiatives already in play like Z-Wave, Insteon and Wink that have thousands of connected products between them – products that may be left out of the Thread loop since the protocol works primarily with ZigBee devices. In Wink’s case, 15 companies are expected to offer 60 Wink-enabled products in August alone. It remains to be seen how Apple and Thread will work with these existing initiatives. If they ignore them, communication fragmentation will remain in the very industry they are trying to standardize.

Despite these hurdles, the announcement of HomeKit and Thread are promising and could open up a whole new world of possibilities for app developers, and, of course, consumers. For the challenges that remain, developers need to keep a close eye on Thread and familiarize themselves with HomeKit’s sleek API, SDKs and Apple’s MFi process. While still very new and not yet proven, both offerings show a lot of promise for the development of the smart home.

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