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Smart Home

What a streamlined HomeKit means for Apple's smart home ambitions

For starters, you can probably expect to see a lot more HomeKit gadgets.

Apple

First announced in 2014, HomeKit is Apple's iOS-based framework for the smart home. The idea is that you'll pair compatible devices like smart lights and smart thermostats with your phone, then automate everything alongside each other using standardized controls in Apple's Home app, or by using Siri voice commands.

That's a compelling pitch given Apple's ability to move markets, but the platform hasn't caught on as quickly as we've seen with Alexa and Google Assistant. Part of the problem: Apple's requirement that every HomeKit-compatible smart home device include an MFi chipset in order to keep things standardized. That hardware requirement left popular legacy gadgets without the MFi chip locked out of the HomeKit ecosystem altogether, and might have discouraged smaller manufacturers from jumping in as well. After all, you don't need a special chip to work with Alexa or Google.

That's why Apple mapped out a second route to HomeKit compatibility, one that doesn't require any extra hardware at all and instead lets devices jump on board via firmware update. After a long wait (remember, HomeKit's been a thing for four years now), that software-based approach is finally live, with one device, the WeMo Mini smart switch from Belkin, already taking advantage. More devices will undoubtedly follow suit, which could spell growth for Apple's smart home ecosystem -- for now, here's everything you need to know.

All about authentication

If you're the maker of a smart home gadget and you want customers to be able to control it with, say, an Alexa voice command, the path is pretty straightforward. Amazon offers open software tools to help developers make Alexa skills that can sync their devices with the platform. Some of those software tools, like Amazon's APIs for things like thermostats and smart locks, even offer uniform, device-specific protocols to ensure a smooth, consistent experience. It's like a public swimming pool -- anybody can jump in. 

By comparison, HomeKit is more like an exclusive nightclub. The only devices that get in are the ones Apple has already vetted -- the VIPs. For that approach to work, Apple needs to check IDs at the door, which is where authentication comes in.

Before software authentication, manufacturers were forced to re-release products that didn't initially include the MFi chip, or to release HomeKit hubs like the WeMo Bridge. Both approaches irked consumers.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Apple's initial approach was to require any device that wanted to connect with HomeKit to include the MFi chipset, a tiny piece of hardware that basically ensures that the device operates according to Apple's standards. The problem with that approach is that it caused major headaches for smart home manufacturers that had already released gadgets without it. No MFi chip, no ID, no HomeKit. Back of the line, buddy.

Some big names, including August and Ecobee, went so far as to re-release their flagship products in a "HomeKit-enabled" edition that included the critical MFi chipset. That was an effective way to move forward, but it left folks who had already spent hundreds on the non-HomeKit-enabled versions of each product behind. Those early adopters typically include a brand's most loyal customers, so people were understandably agitated.

Other brands with smart home gadgets left out of the HomeKit club chose instead to develop new hub accessories that included the MFi chip. Devices like those would usher the existing gadgets into the HomeKit ecosystem, essentially telling the bouncer "it's cool, they're with me" on the way in. That worked as well, but it put brands like WeMo that had proudly marketed themselves as hub-free platforms in an awkward spot -- and again, it forced customers who had already invested in those platforms to plunk down even more of their money.

That's why the new software-based authentication approach is a big step forward for HomeKit. Devices don't need the MFi chipset in order to get into the club anymore -- instead, they can fall in line with Apple's standards with a simple software update. That means that manufacturers can offer their customers HomeKit access without needing them to purchase new versions of their products or additional hub accessories.

You'll still pair with your HomeKit gadgets just like you did before.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

A secure ecosystem

One of the things we like about HomeKit is Apple's focus on security, with stringent standards and end-to-end encryption at every turn. The new software-based authentication approach shouldn't do anything to change that, because authenticating a HomeKit gadget doesn't grant it access to sensitive info like your iCloud password or the credit card on file with your account. Again, authentication is just Apple's way of ensuring that the only devices you can connect with your account are ones that fall in line with its standards..

There are differences, though. Each MFi chipset comes with its own unique identifier that acts as the Apple-approved key to let it into the HomeKit ecosystem. A HomeKit gadget that takes the software approach to authentication won't have its own unique identifier -- instead, when you pair it with your setup, it will request an identifier from Apple's servers.

Additionally, when you reset a HomeKit device that's equipped with the MFi chipset, the unique identifier will remain the same. That's not the case with the software identification method -- if you ever reset it and re-pair it with your setup, it'll receive a new identifier from Apple.

That's another link in the chain, perhaps, but Apple's encryption practices have a very strong track record. There's also no reason to think that a software-based approach to authentication will change the user experience -- from your perspective, you'll still plug your gadget in, tell the Home app that you're ready to pair with it and then scan the HomeKit code with your phone to finish the connection.

All aboard?

The big question is whether or not Apple's new approach will really encourage more manufacturers to jump in with HomeKit, but I think it's a pretty safe bet. Apple's smart home ecosystem isn't quite as hot a draw as Amazon or Google's currently is, but it still holds a lot of value for manufacturers looking to give anyone with an iPhone additional reason to buy their product. And if anyone's capable of catching up and changing the game, it's Apple. For instance, just imagine if Apple released a significantly more affordable "HomePod Nano" smart speaker with improved Siri controls.

From my point of view, that's the real question here. Software authentication will likely lead to a rise in the number of HomeKit-compatible devices, and I'll betcha we'll see a bunch of them next year at CES, but with Amazon Echoes and Google Home Minis continuing to fly off shelves, Apple's team needs to do more to win over consumers, too. How they try to do that still remains to be seen.