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Smart Home

iOS 9: HomeKit's time to shine?

HomeKit has been slow to emerge following its iOS 8 debut. Now, key upgrades in iOS 9 seem primed to move Apple's smart home platform forward.

The arrival of iOS 8 in 2014 marked the debut of HomeKit, Apple's attempt to anchor the connected home gadgets of the ever-expanding Internet of Things within a standardized set of iPhone-friendly protocols. Since then, HomeKit has largely been a background player, and to date, only a handful of devices actually work within its framework.

There's good reason for optimism, though. For starters, the catalog of HomeKit-compatible smart home devices is expected to grow in the coming months, including the arrival of heavy hitters like the color-changing bulbs of Philips Hue. Support for these new devices seems to be built right into the newly released iOS 9, the latest version of Apple's mobile operating system, and existing HomeKit products like the Insteon Hub Pro claim that they'll be ready to work with the new devices as soon as manufacturers release them -- a direct benefit of Apple's unification efforts. iOS 9 also puts some new tricks into the HomeKit toolbox, including smarter Siri controls and support for new kinds of gadgets.

All of it seems to signal that HomeKit is about to take a much-needed step forward, and a timely one too, given the recent and rapid development in the race to control the smart homes of tomorrow. The SmartThings 2.0 connected home platform is slated to start shipping this month, and should ultimately play a central role in Samsung's vision for the Internet of Things. Amazon's in the game too, with a steady stream of smart-home-oriented updates for its Amazon Echo voice-controlled speaker. In the months ahead, we'll also likely see more from Google Brillo, the tech titan's stab at Android-based smart-home management. With HomeKit's new iOS 9-powered smarts, Apple is in as good a position as any of them to move the needle.

Smarter HomeKit control

Siri's been sitting right at the center of HomeKit since day one. Her main function is on-demand device control. Ask her to dim a HomeKit-compatible light or turn down a HomeKit-compatible thermostat, and she'll get right on it. If you want to control several devices at once, you can group them into a "scene," then tell Siri to run that scene.

In iOS 9, you'll see four new default scenes within every HomeKit-compatible app: one for waking up, one for leaving home, one for returning home, and one for going to bed. The idea is that these are common routines that everyone experiences on a regular basis, which makes them good candidates for automation. And don't worry -- if you want to create your own scene for party lighting or movie night, you'll still be able to.

iOS 9 gives HomeKit new automation capabilities for device-makers to take advantage of. Apple

You'll also be able to set your devices and scenes to run automatically based on new triggers. Tie those smart home scenes for leaving and returning home to your phone's location, and they'll run automatically as you come and go -- no need to open an app or ask Siri to do anything. You can also schedule changes for specific times of the day, or sync your gear up with local sunrise and sunset times.

The third type of trigger, accessory-based events, is the really interesting one. In iOS 9, you'll be able to trigger your HomeKit-compatible smart home gadgets using other HomeKit-compatible smart home gadgets. For instance, you can plug a desk fan into the iHome smart plug, then tell it to turn on whenever the Ecobee3 thermostat hits 80 degrees, or set your lights to turn on whenever a motion detector catches you walking into the room. You can add extra context, too -- for instance, limiting that motion-activated light trigger to evening hours only.

Just remember that there isn't a dedicated HomeKit app, so if you want to create these types of automations, you'll have to do so using the third-party control apps that come with your devices. Some of the devices will likely require further updates to fully take advantage of iOS 9.

In iOS 9, you'll be able to trigger your HomeKit-compatible smart home gadgets using other HomeKit-compatible smart home gadgets. Apple

New hardware, new software

Insteon is taking a Wheel of Fortune-type of approach, with a spinning color selector for RGB smart bulbs in the Insteon+ app. Insteon

Another iOS 9 HomeKit upgrade: support for new types of devices. Until now, the scope's been a bit limited, with support for lights, locks, switches and other things you turn on and off, but not a lot of support for things like leak detectors or motion sensors that keep an eye on your home. iOS 9 changes that, bringing support for those kinds of sensors into play (and making those accessory-based automations possible). As soon as HomeKit-compatible sensors hit the market, your phone's operating system will be ready to recognize them and put them to work.

There's also native, HomeKit-specific support for color-changing lights, like Philips Hue LEDs, which are due to make HomeKit compatibility official sometime this month. Those HomeKit-specific color controls mean that any HomeKit-compatible app can create its own interface for changing the color of your lights. Insteon, for instance, is taking a Wheel of Fortune-type of approach, with a spinning color selector for RGB smart bulbs in the Insteon+ app.

You might also start seeing third-party HomeKit control apps that aren't tied to a specific product, similar to third-party apps that offer to control your podcasts or iTunes music. HomeKit's standardized protocols create a sort of brand-agnostic language that developers can use to craft control apps for the smart home. To that end, you'll find a new "Apps for HomeKit" collection in the App Store. It'll be interesting to see if the collection grows in the coming months, and if a third-party app can rise to fill the role of de facto HomeKit controller.

Until now, you've had to use Apple TV to control your HomeKit devices from beyond the home. That changes in iOS 9. Sarah Tew/CNET

iCloud remote access

The last big change is that you'll no longer need an Apple TV to control your HomeKit gadgets when you're not at home. Communications between your iOS device and the gadget you're trying to turn off are all well and good when everything's operating under the same, secured Wi-Fi network, but if you're trying to turn that gadget off from afar, HomeKit requires a sort of gatekeeper to authenticate your request. Initially, Apple TV played that role, but in iOS 9, you can use your iCloud Keychain, instead.

Again, this isn't an automatic, instant upgrade. Manufacturers will need to upgrade their software to take advantage of iCloud remote access, which means you might need to wait for an app update before you'll be able to enjoy HomeKit control while out of the house without an Apple TV.

The same applies to HomeKit in its entirety, really. Apple isn't making its own smart home gadgets, or even its own smart home control app. That puts the ball entirely in the hands of third-party manufacturers. As new compatible apps and devices arrive to take advantage of the groundwork Apple has laid out, HomeKit stands to get better and better. The only thing at question is how easy it is for those third parties to build upon that groundwork, and to do so in a way that gets people to buy in. That remains to be seen, but at this point, iOS 9's HomeKit upgrades look like a clear step in the right direction.