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Smart Home

A new app and a more open approach to Siri could save Apple's smart home

Apple's HomeKit smart-home platform is lagging behind the competition, but making Siri available to developers could change everything.

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We've long-lamented over the glacial pace of Apple's HomeKit smart home platform when it comes to adopting new partners, but that might be changing soon. At the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) on Monday, the tech giant finally committed to offering a direct portal to HomeKit via a dedicated app in iOS 10. It also announced HomeKit support for security cameras and that it will make Siri available to third-party app developers.

So while we didn't hear anything about an Apple-brand competitor to the Amazon Echo or the soon-to-be-released Google Home, these updates could help put HomeKit back on the smart-home radar. Here's how.

Hitting 'Home'

HomeKit isn't all that easy to configure when you're dealing with multiple users and multiple devices.

Megan Wollerton/CNET

Since it was first announced at WWDC 2014, Apple HomeKit has been a nomad. It's a piece of software in iOS, but doesn't have a direct gateway to the user, beyond a limited settings screen. Instead, the responsibility falls to the companies selling HomeKit-enabled products and other third parties to design software that helps folks manage compatible devices.

But that has some serious limitations. Many of the third-party apps are fee-based and several are overly complex. And unofficial software only gets you so far when you need to troubleshoot more advanced topics like how to use your Apple TV to enable Siri access outside your home Wi-Fi network. For that you'll likely end up sifting through Apple support pages for help.

The upcoming Home app for iOS 10 will hopefully improve things. Not only will users have a clear starting off point for setting up and managing HomeKit-enabled products, dedicated software might also force Apple to take ownership of its smart home platform, including initiating regular updates and making HomeKit easier to navigate overall.

Siri opens up

Using Siri to control a HomeKit-enabled Lutron dimmer switch.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Opening up Siri to developers could also kick HomeKit into high gear. Right now, Apple's platform is far behind the competition when it comes to number of smart home integrations. Where Amazon Alexa and Google/Alphabet Nest have over 100 active device partners combined, Apple's HomeKit has less than 20.

That's partly because both Amazon and Nest offer open-software programs that make smart home partnerships simple by comparison.

Amazon relies on its Alexa Skills Kit, a place where developers can build their own integrations for the Echo, Echo Dot, and Tap devices. There's even a dedicated Smart Home Skill API for smart-home-specific projects. But that's only a small part of its open software platform. Amazon's Skills Kit has over 1,200 integrations as of June 14, ranging from, "Alexa ask 1-800-Flowers to order Becky flowers," to, "Alexa, Ask Albert Einstein Facts to tell me a fact."

Nest's Works with Nest program works in much the same way, although the company does more to curate the integrations so they're mostly limited to smart home devices and services.

A Siri software developer kit will give Apple the chance to catch up to Amazon and Nest, but there's still a lot of ground to cover.

A bright future for HomeKit?

There are a lot of unknowns when it comes to HomeKit ( Where's its version of the Amazon Echo, for instance?). This year's WWDC did at least make it clear that Apple wants to be more competitive in the smart home space. But adding a Home app for HomeKit in iOS 10 and making Siri available to developers is just the start.

Apple did also announce HomeKit support for security cameras at WWDC -- a significant update that will make it possible to see your live feeds from your iPhone's lock screen ( August, Ring and Kuna are among the first partners). It also revealed that major US home builders Lennar and KB, among others, will be incorporating HomeKit into new construction. Between those steps and the rumors of an Echo-competitor, HomeKit and Siri could both help Apple establish a more dominant position in the smart home in short order. iOS 10, which brings all of the new HomeKit features, will be available in beta form soon, with a final release set for the fall.