For all you Apple fans, good news for Smart Home
20 June 2021
Apple recently held their annual World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC 2021) where they made some very interesting announcements regarding their HomeKit plans. I haven’t been a Mac user for a long time though I have used an iPhone for years. I also had the pleasure on a recent visit to see our daughter’s new home and get to play with her Apple TV. It was part of some smart home help as I also helped her boyfriend install the flat panel on the living room wall and set up a FireTV Cube. I got to make a formal introduction with Alexa and show off some of the voice automation she might like.
Unlike most of those interested in WWDC ’21 I was primarily focused on Apple’s plans around smart home and Matter. I posted a blog last month regarding Matter and the efforts around standardization in smart home. If you’ve looked at the different technologies around smart home lately the variety of products could start to hurt your brain. It’s about the lack of standards and the proliferation of development. I was very interested in finding out how Apple would integrate their products into the developing standard sets in order to grow their capabilities and market share in smart home.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear that Apple will build around the iOS 15 software update to include Matter support. Considering the developer beta for iOS 15 is already available and a public beta starts in July, that means Matter is almost here for HomeKit.
Last month, Google announced vague device support for Matter coming later this year. And sadly Amazon hasn’t made any announcements about Matter yet. This is particularly puzzling and distressing to me as I’m a big Alexa fan — especially because of what the standard will bring to the smart home. The core mission of Matter is to give the ability to use just about any device for a smart home ecosystem with any other ecosystem.
It’s been confirmed that the Apple Home will work with non-HomeKit devices which is great news. Even better, devices with Matter support won’t need to be certified as HomeKit devices for this to work.
There have been concerns about this being a potential issue with getting non-HomeKit connected bulbs, sensors and locks to work with HomeKit using Matter. During WWDC ’21, Apple noted that much of their open source HomeKit code contributed to the development of Matter. I think Apple surprised many by allowing device makers to integrate Siri into future hardware with microphones and speakers. It makes sense as Alexa is already integrated into Ecobee thermostats and Apple will have to in order to build out a full smart home ecosystem and be competitive. Officially however, Ecobee hasn’t made any announcement supporting this but I’d imagine it’s only a matter of time.
Any Siri-enabled devices would be considered “HomeKit accessories,” suggesting that they’ll need to be certified for HomeKit. That makes sense because Apple is the sole developer of Siri and its capabilities. But it will add an extra step for device makers for the certification process. I’d expect most of the current HomeKit device vendors to adopt Siri faster than companies that aren’t in the HomeKit market yet. This could give them a leg up as Apple is ahead of Google and Amazon in device support.
Not being a real Apple fan, I’d imagine those that are would like to see Apple introduce a “HomePad” smart display, similar to Amazon’s Echo Show — basically a static, powered iPad with a speaker base). So far no news there and possibly never. Apple sees the smart home interface very much like Amazon and Google — you use it through displays and your voice. The difference with Apple is that they want the display interface with you at all times. So instead of a stationary smart display, you interact with your home on the Apple Watch, an iPhone or an iPad.
The interface scales with whatever size display you have. The Home app is also available when you’re not moving as you can use the Home app on a Mac or on Apple TV. And you can place HomePod mini speakers around your home to supplement voice interaction — think Amazon Alexa.
So, at this point, Apple looks to have all the smart home bases covered without a traditional smart display. Interestingly, a very different solution model than Amazon or Google — instead of offering one smart display to support a family of users, Apple will sell you screens for each user in a family via the Apple Watch, iPad and iPhone. There may be more revenue potential to keep the smart home screen separated and it opens other integration opportunities in the future.
Across all these devices, the Home app is getting some nice value-add upgrades. Instead of viewing a single HomeKit camera feed on Apple TV, you’ll be able to view multiple cameras later this year. I really like the idea of when a visitor rings your HomeKit doorbell, you can have the video appear on your television. Unfortunately you can’t use the Apple TV Siri remote to have a two-way conversation with someone who rang the doorbell. That would be a really cool feature for Apple to add in the future.
Home on the Apple Watch will bring more important home controls and statuses based on context — that means less scrolling or turning the watch’s digital crown. Package detection is arriving later this year for HomeKit cameras. And using on-device intelligence, Apple says the Apple TV will show controls for nearby available devices, offering a pseudo-presence experience.
Apple also seems to be embracing new edge technologies as Siri is moving from a cloud-based service to a local processing state. That means no audio to the cloud from your Apple and HomeKit devices when controlling your devices. There are a long list of benefits for localizing language processing in the smart home but the most important may be privacy-centric.
All of that processing will be done using the compute power of your HomeKit hub, which can be an Apple TV, HomePod mini, or a plugged-in iPad. And the chips inside each of these have far more capability than the silicon inside smart speakers and displays from either Google or Amazon. This is of particular interest to me as Debbie and I plan our home build. Local compute is important as I’m determined to avoid cloud dependency on smart home operation, primarily through Zigbee or Z-wave capable hubs. This gives us resiliency living in a bit of a rural environment where our smart home will still function even during internet outages. And as long as we have power, but that’s a topic for another post.
Apple is also moving pretty fast when it comes to using the device you carry or wear for local access control. They already have support for CarKey with new BMW vehicles so you don’t have to carry a physical key. This year Apple is also expanding to your home and work keys too. Working with a large number of lock makers, iOS 15 will add support for unlocking a door by holding your iPhone or Apple Watch near a lock. The downside is you’ll very likely need new hardware on your door for this because Apple is using NFC to access the lock controls — unfortunately right now there are only a few mainstream smart locks that include an NFC radio. The good news is you won’t need a new iPhone that has Apple’s U1 ultrawideband chip for these locks. All things considered, I think the long term benefits far outweigh the costs.
Overall it looks like Apple is taking HomeKit from a dark horse or niche solution to a potential leader in the smart home ecosystem. It’s doing that without competing heads up with Amazon and Google around smart displays and with a privacy focus using local processing. I think this is a good direction for Apple as they have always forged their own path in computing. And it’s good for them to stick to their DNA as that’s what Apple users expect and will drive loyalty adoption in the smart home market among them. And bringing this article full circle a bit, thanks to support for Matter, the availability of devices that work with Apple Home is about to expand exponentially.
Debbie and I also have some home build project updates that are at least mildly exciting: Lumber prices are trending down and we started site prep on our lot.
Lumber futures posted their biggest-ever weekly loss, extending a tumble from all-time highs reached last month as sawmills ramp up output and buyers have held off on purchases. Prices fell 18% last week, dropping almost 40% from the record high reached on May 10th.
Sawmills appear to be catching up with the rampant homebuilding demand in the US that fueled a months-long rally, bringing some relief to a market suffering from supply shortages and price surges. Buyers are still balking at historically elevated prices and awaiting additional supplies.
US lumber production has responded to the price rally by ramping up output by 5% over the past 12 months with another expected increase of 5%, or roughly 1B board feet. One lumber producer is spending $50M to increase its lumber production, expanding capacity at five US mills, while a competitor has said it will invest around $160M in a new sawmill.
Still, while lumber prices may finally be pulling back from record highs, there’s not an expected return to pre-pandemic levels any time soon. With strong US home building expected to last for several years, lumber prices will likely remain above $500 per 1,000 board feet for the next five to eight years.
We were also able to start site prep on our lot. It finally stopped raining long enough to dry up the lot, allowing our contractor to get his heavy equipment in there. Nothing too exciting to the casual observer as the lot is pretty flat and featureless. But we’re excited as it’s the first real work started on the project. And we see it as a “clean slate” which offers endless options for home placement, landscaping and other features.
If wood prices continue to drop it may open a window of opportunity for us to pour the foundation this fall once the heat subsides to avoid potential issues with heat. Hopefully this also gives us timing to get the housed sealed for interior work before the wintry weather sets in.
Speaking of pouring foundations, I had a great call with my long-time friend Jack, who also worked in the sports industry. He set his foundation last week and wanted to talk home building. It was great to bounce some ideas around and share floor plans. I have to admit that I’m a little jealous of Jack’s lot as it sits on a lake and has trees. But then again it’s Florida, not west Texas.
What are you thoughts around Apple’s integration and development around Matter? Will it change the culture to adopt standards to align better with other smart home vendors? Would you be an early Apple smart home adopter? Lots of questions but outlook seems bright. Let us know your thoughts as we love your comments, questions, DMs and email. Also let me know if there are certain smart home topics you’re particularly interested in. Until next week …
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