Apple has always marched to its own beat, for better or worse. Most famously, in the cases of the Mac, the iPod and later the iPhone, its bold strategies paid off. Today, the company's singular style and occasionally unpredictable commitments have made it somewhat of an enigma among its brethren. While Amazon, Google and even Facebook have raced to acquire promising developers, expand their hardware offerings and beat the competition by controlling an ever-diversifying portfolio of products, Apple has kept making computers, phones and tablets -- and of course running the App Store and a suite of media and streaming platforms. Its foray into headphones, after purchasing Beats in 2014, represents one of the few investments into a truly new hardware category for the company (though Apple already made its own earbuds at that point).
But while Apple's fidelity to computers and phones has proven prudent -- and its approach to software profitable -- the company's strategy in the smart home has been less obviously successful. Apple has kept one foot in the smart home market: by prioritizing HomeKit, its integrative apparatus, it offered the smoothest, most reliable and most secure platform on the market.
Yet the company's dependence on third-party developers to provide the hardware necessary to leverage HomeKit (and even more so, HomeKit Secure Video) meant Apple missed a huge opportunity to stake out a claim on countertops across the country. In 2022, Amazon and Google exert near unassailable market control in the category of smart speakers -- an area Apple practically ceded to its competitors when it allowed Siri to languish for years after its debut, and when it neglected to launch an affordable smart speaker until 2020. And even its software edge is slipping away, now that the new universal smart home standard Matter is standardizing many of the best features of HomeKit industry-wide.
Apple is left with two options: trust that its brand will be enough to win customers back from Amazon and Google after they spend years using Alexa- and Google Assistant-powered products; or use 2022 and 2023 to make a more serious claim on the market, leveraging its existing iPad hardware, and laying the groundwork for security camera and broadband hardware offerings.
What's the Matter, Apple?
The smart home market has been disproportionately shaped by one deceptively simple question: How can so many small devices work without running out of batteries? That may seem reductive, but using Wi-Fi to connect battery-powered gadgets drains their power extremely quickly. This realization gave rise to Bluetooth Low Energy, Z-Wave, Zigbee and a host of proprietary communication protocols to keep devices connected and powered for longer.
But that messy grid of connection, along with widely variable security standards, made the job of integration particularly difficult. Amazon and Google adopted an open-handed approach: open up the APIs for their voice assistants and allow developers to connect their devices to Alexa and Google Assistant. The result was mixed. You could find tens of thousands of devices to work with Amazon Echoes and Nest Minis, but many of them were of dubious quality and reliability.
Apple, as always, wanted to ensure a better and more consistent experience for its customers, and used only the HomeKit Accessory Protocol to integrate. At first, the company also required developers to install a proprietary chip in their devices to work with Siri and HomeKit -- a barrier that stopped many potential partners from integrating, and that led to complications for those who wanted to join after already releasing early builds of their devices.
Apple's vision for the smart home was of a closed garden, where its devices were fenced into one system and worked predictably and reliably within it. That garden remained fairly small, with only one or two product options for each major smart home device category, but its performance was undeniably excellent. I remember installing over a dozen Lutron smart shades in the CNET Smart Home back in 2016 -- and those same shades still work excellently with Siri today. The same certainly can't be said for lights and other accessories I integrated using my erstwhile Nest account and my now-chaotic Alexa account.
But despite all HomeKit's strengths, Apple never used it to entice users to adopt first-party hardware. Its original HomePod barely sold at all after a half-hearted rollout, and Apple didn't launch a truly accessible smart speaker, the $100 HomePod Mini, until 2020 -- fully six years after Amazon launched its first Echo speaker.
Apple still hasn't launched a smart display equivalent to Amazon's Echo Show and Google's Nest Hub, and it seems even further from announcing something more ambitious, like a security camera or router, to compete with its competitors' Eero, Ring, Blink or Nest product lines.
What's more, its best window to launch such devices is closing. Remember that messy set of communication protocols and security standards that made HomeKit so special? The Connectivity Standards Alliance, which launched and supported Zigbee, one of the best communication protocols in the smart home's wild west days, is soon to roll out Matter: a communication standard that every major smart home developer plans to adopt.
Matter's impending launch isn't the only ticking clock at Apple's back. While integration within its closed garden has long been Apple's strong suit, competitors are beginning to offer far more ambitious efforts at a similar customer experience. Take Amazon's Ring Alarm Pro security system, which integrates an Eero WiFi 6 router with a DIY home security system, cellular-powered backup internet in case of electric and/or broadband outages, local storage and end-to-end encryption for Ring's video doorbell devices, and robust Alexa integrations. Add Matter to the mix and you'll soon be able to build out a seriously smart, voice-driven home that integrates security, internet and voice control.
Of course, one solid product from a competitor doesn't spell doom for one of the biggest companies in the world. Apple's customers, after all, are some of the most undyingly loyal in the whole tech industry. But Apple keeps its customers in part by making leaving the Apple ecosystem difficult. If your MacBook dies, and you've got an iPhone and iPad, considering a Chromebook is tough, simply because all your easy integrations will suddenly become much more complicated. One hole in the system breaks down the whole flow that Apple customers have come to enjoy and, more importantly, expect.
But if Apple's only smart home hardware is the HomePod Mini -- and arguably Apple TV -- customers won't find it difficult at all to consider Nest Mesh or Eero routers. And from there, why not consider home security that works with Google or Amazon, in which case a Google Assistant- or Alexa-powered smart speaker starts to make much more sense.
To put it simply, Apple's absence from the space makes seeking alternatives too easy for Apple customers.
It's possible that Apple's smart home products, whenever they do eventually launch, will be so well-designed that it can win back its customers from the clutches of its competitors -- but that seems like a suboptimal position for the company, at the very least.
The question, then, isn't whether Apple will continue to be a successful tech company. Of course it will. The question is whether it will be a dominant force in the next generation of voice integration in the smart home, or whether it will stay in its lane while others expand the highway.
I've reached out to Apple multiple times asking many of the questions above to them directly, but their representatives have remained typically tight-lipped about the future.
"We believe all smart home accessories should work together to provide the most choice and interoperability for customers without compromising security and privacy," an Apple spokesperson told me. "This is why we helped create and contribute to the new Matter standard, so that all smart home accessories will have the same level of security, privacy, and ease of use that Apple customers enjoy today with HomeKit accessories."
Without anything more concrete, and as someone who has covered HomeKit and Apple's smart home products since the beginning, here is one practical development I expect to see from Apple this year, and two I would argue the company should aggressively pursue in the coming years if it doesn't want to surrender significant tracts of smart home territory to its competitors.
This year, I expect Apple to expand its developer tools, focusing in particular on how smart home control on the iPad can be made more robust. Right now Apple has no device filling the smart display niche that the Amazon Echo and Nest Hub displays fill, effectively unifying music play, video chat and smart home control. That said, the iPad could accomplish some of those functions by integrating more effectively with the HomePod Mini, perhaps docking on its own speaker (this one is a longshot) and most importantly, adding more intuitive and inviting smart home controls to the interface.
While the iPad's smart home interface will likely see improvements this year, what's less likely is Apple releasing truly new hardware. That said, thanks to an already strong HomeKit Secure Video platform, which offers impressive encrypted cloud storage to iCloud users, one great opportunity for Apple would be to launch a video doorbell or security camera of another sort. This is especially true this year, since Matter won't support video devices out of the gate (though Matter's CEO has assured me it will be coming along in short order). I know half a dozen Apple enthusiasts with Ring doorbells on their front porches. They already have iCloud accounts for storage, rendering HomeKit Secure Video effectively free to them -- but they prefer the more polished experience of a major brand device like Ring's. Such a customer base is simply waiting for Apple's offering.
Finally -- and this may be the longest shot of all -- Apple's biggest challenge will eventually be Wi-Fi. As smart home developers have long understood, the router truly provides the soil, season and climate to the smart home ecosystem. And that's precisely why it makes sense for Apple in the long run to invest in developing a router: the company's integrated closed garden could be governed most effectively from such a top-down approach. What's more, customers are getting more and more comfortable with concepts that only a few years ago appeared arcane to most, including download and upload speeds, mesh systems and Wi-Fi 6. Upgrading to an Apple router would be a no-brainer for countless Apple fans.
How likely is Apple to take any of these courses of action? It depends on timing. The first seems almost guaranteed to me this year -- and it would be a serious oversight if it didn't happen soon. The second and third seem like more distant possibilities, but they also make sense given the groundwork Apple has already laid and the strategies the company has consistently employed.
I would be particularly interested to see a home security camera or video doorbell materialize for Apple, though the hardware development process may be too demanding -- since Apple hasn't purchased any video developers -- for a short timeframe.
2022 and beyond
Apple is in a unique position right now. It has largely stayed above the fray of Google and Amazon vying for smart home dominance in product categories as wide ranging as thermostats, smart cams, security systems and routers. And in some ways, that remove has allowed it the time to select its priorities more carefully, focusing on excellent user experience and reliable integration.
But that judiciousness may soon disqualify Apple from competing meaningfully in this burgeoning industry. The time to act has come, and it won't stick around for long.