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A Prairie HomeKit Companion: Core Concepts

At the end of “Getting Started with the Philips Hue Smart Light Bulbs” (1 August 2016), I touched on HomeKit, Apple’s framework for controlling home automation devices. Since then, we’ve received a lot of requests for more information on HomeKit and home automation, so in this series, I’ll explain what HomeKit is, how it works, and how to use it. I’ll also look at some of the home automation devices that work with HomeKit.

But first, let’s talk about why you might want to use home automation in the first place.

Why Home Automation? — If you’ve never used home automation before, it can seem like a gimmick at best and a potential nightmare at worst.

Untold movies and TV shows have explored the potential horrors of home automation. Most recently, in an episode of “Mr. Robot,” a woman is driven from her home after hackers make her apartment go haywire.

Even if complete takeover of your home by revolutionary hackers is far-fetched, problems could be annoying. By definition, home automation takes place in your personal space, and buggy code or simple human error, even in Apple’s somewhat simplified offering, could have a real impact on your life. Think carefully before diving in.

But once you begin to use home automation, you start to see the everyday problems it can solve. Home automation may not change your world, but it can remove friction from your daily existence. Think about how many times a day you turn lights on and off, set your thermostat, adjust a ceiling fan, or check door locks. Even if it’s just a matter of making sure everything is as you want before bed, that’s a win. It can also compensate for the thoughtlessness of others — those people in your household who forget to turn off lights or check that the fridge is closed.

When you set home automation up intelligently, you’ll feel empowered, not overwhelmed. For Apple users, HomeKit offers the easiest, most secure way to achieve that goal.

This series will unfold over the next few weeks, but if you’re in a hurry to learn more, check out my book, “iOS 10: A Take Control Crash Course,” which has an entire chapter dedicated to HomeKit and iOS 10’s new Home app.

Why HomeKit? — Apple’s HomeKit home automation framework gives hardware manufacturers and software developers a unified way to interact with home automation devices on iOS, tvOS, and watchOS.

Home automation isn’t new — the X10 home automation protocol has existed since 1975, and I’ve heard from readers who controlled home automation setups with Apple II computers!

By comparison, HomeKit is a baby. It debuted with iOS 8, although HomeKit-compatible devices didn’t start hitting the market until iOS 9. Even then, HomeKit control was rudimentary, relying on third-party apps. iOS 10 and watchOS 3 introduced Apple’s Home app, which offers a standardized way to manage and control HomeKit devices. Standard is good, but HomeKit is far from a complete home automation solution.

Every home automation vendor provides its own software, and some of those solutions offer capabilities beyond what HomeKit provides. Some systems, such as the Philips Hue, provide a complete developer API, which makes possible apps like Light DJ, which syncs your lights with music, something HomeKit can’t do. That’s just one example — an entire ecosystem has grown up around the Hue lights.

The other downside of HomeKit is that it can’t control just any device — manufacturers must work with Apple to have their devices certified for HomeKit. Based on my discussions with vendors, that’s challenging and expensive, though as I’ll explain, there are good reasons for that. As a result, the HomeKit ecosystem doesn’t offer as many options as more established and more open standards like X10.

So why use HomeKit at all? There are several excellent reasons:

  • Security: Apple has arguably the best security of any large consumer-oriented tech company. Remote access to HomeKit devices is disabled by default and can’t even be turned on unless you’ve enabled two-factor authentication on your Apple ID. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more secure home automation system that’s this easy to use.

    This advantage came into sharp focus recently with the DDoS attack that interrupted Internet service in the United States (see “Massive DDoS Attack Blocks Access to U.S. Web Sites,” 24 October 2016). That attack was made possible thanks to a plethora of insecure Internet of Things devices like DVRs and IP cameras.

    Last year, Forbes reported on the pains hardware vendors were experiencing making HomeKit devices to Apple’s exacting standards, especially when it comes to security. However, after seeing the destructive potential of insecure Internet-connected devices, I think we can better appreciate Apple’s rigorous approval process.

  • Integration: HomeKit devices work with the built-in Home app in iOS 10, and your favorite Accessories and Scenes automatically appear in the third pane of Control Center. Also, you can control your devices using Siri in iOS 10, tvOS 10, and watchOS 3.

  • Sharing: The Home app makes it easy to manage shared access to HomeKit devices. You can add and remove people, and decide whether or not they can edit your configurations. Also, changes you make to your HomeKit setup are automatically made available to everyone with whom you’re sharing.

  • Interoperability: The Philips Hue app is pretty good, but it can’t control my iHome iSP5 or Elgato Eve Energy smart plugs. With HomeKit, I can set up a Scene to turn all of those devices off at once. HomeKit’s goal is to let you forget about vendors and focus on functionality. Also, since HomeKit is an open framework, developers can create HomeKit control apps, some of which are more capable than Apple’s Home app.

  • Ease of Use: Home automation is complicated, but HomeKit offers the simplest, most unified home automation experience on the market. Apple’s Home app may not be the most powerful home automation app, but it won’t intimidate the casual user. Most HomeKit devices are plug-and-play.

As simple as HomeKit is to use, you need to understand its core concepts to feel in control and to know what I’m talking about in future HomeKit articles.

The HomeKit Hierarchy — First, let’s go over a bit of necessary terminology, but don’t worry, it’s relatively straightforward.

Apple organized HomeKit into a hierarchy, which gives you various levels of control over your devices.

The highest level is a Home. A Home could be your residence, but it could also be an outbuilding, an office, a vacation home, or some other multi-room structure

In the next level down, you have Rooms. A Room is, as you’d guess, a section of a Home. You can set up your living room, bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen as Rooms in your Home.

(Technically speaking, there’s another level of HomeKit hierarchy above Rooms: Zones, which are collections of Rooms. For instance, all the rooms downstairs in your house could be a Zone. However, Apple’s Home app doesn’t yet support Zones, so I won’t discuss them much in this series.)

Next in the hierarchy are Accessories, which are the home automation devices in your Home, like smart bulbs, wall plugs, locks, thermostats, ceiling fans, etc.

Accessories offer Services, which are the functions of the Accessory. For most devices, the Accessory and Service are indistinguishable, but some Accessories offer multiple Services. For example, my Elgato Eve Room sensor provides four Services: Current Temperature, Current Relative Humidity, Air Quality, and Battery Level.

However, Apple’s Home app blurs the line between Accessories and Services, listing Services as Accessories. It also doesn’t display the Eve Room’s Battery Level Service.

If you find the difference between Accessories and Services confusing, don’t worry about it. At the moment, it’s trivia.

You can also group Accessories to make operation simpler. For instance, I’ve grouped my two Hue-powered living room lamps, so I can adjust their color and brightness together. However, if I dig a little deeper into the Home app, I can still manipulate each one separately.

The HomeKit hierarchy is a bit of a pain, but it’s essential to a smooth HomeKit experience, especially when you use Siri. I can tell Siri to turn on the laundry room light or make my living room blue, and it understands my commands perfectly. (Well, most of the time. It’s still Siri.)

The last two terms you need to know are the most important: Scenes and Automations. A Scene is a collection of actions; for instance, my Good Night scene turns off the lamps in our laundry and music rooms, and dims the lights in the living room to zero (just enough light to see at night, without actually being off). Scenes are one of the most important concepts in home automation, and I’ll cover them extensively.

As the name suggests, Automations invoke Scenes automatically according to a user-specified schedule. I’ll cover these more in a future installment. When set up carefully, Automations can remove even more friction from your life.

For instance, on weekdays my wife usually wakes up earlier than I do. At 5:30 AM, my Good Morning scene turns on the lights in the laundry, music, and living rooms, so she doesn’t have to stumble through a dark house (our laundry room doubles as her closet, and the music room — a converted garage — adjoins the laundry room). At 8:30 AM, the Good Night scene turns off all those lights because by that time, she’s usually long gone from the house. At 3:00 PM, about the time she usually gets home from work, the Good Morning scene comes on again, so those areas of the house are well lit when she walks in and wants to change her clothes or prep for a music lesson. At night, we activate the Good Night scene manually, because we don’t
all go to bed at a fixed time.

I’ve put a lot of thought into these Automations, so no one’s surprised by a light suddenly turning on or off. When my wife gets up, the lights she needs are on. They turn off after she leaves, and they’re back on when she gets home. And that’s with only two Scenes!

With careful planning, your automated home can be just as seamless.

Planning Your HomeKit Home — If you’re intrigued by the promise of HomeKit and want to start playing with home automation, I have a few recommendations.

First, communication is essential. Discuss your plans before you start buying stuff so everyone in the house has input. If your partner or roommate isn’t technical or might be bothered by the inevitable learning pains, consider starting with a single device. In the most extreme case, you might learn that home automation isn’t worth the conflict it may cause.

If you’re planning to set up automated lights and smart plugs, it’s important to discuss our habit of using physical switches. For instance, if I turn off a switch that controls a lamp with Hue bulbs, my HomeKit Scene can’t turn them back on automatically, which could leave my wife fumbling in the early morning darkness.

The solution to this problem is to install smart switches that can work with your home automation system and be activated manually (which is also helpful for guests). Elgato just released the first HomeKit-enabled wall switch, the Eve Light Switch. Philips makes a couple for use with the Hue bulbs — the Philips Hue Dimmer Switch and the Philips Hue Tap Switch. iDevices announced a couple of HomeKit wall
months ago, but they have yet to appear on the market. At first, you’ll probably have to get used to using your iPhone or Apple Watch to control lights. I haven’t personally used any of these smart switches yet, so I can’t currently offer a recommendation. (If you have, let us know in the comments!)

When the decision makers in your home understand and agree to home automation, the next step is figuring out where to begin. I recommend starting small with some sort of light control, either the Philips Hue system or a smart plug like the iHome SmartPlug or Elgato Eve Energy.

Everyone I know who has tried Hue loves it (including our own Jeff Carlson, who regularly curses me for hooking him on home automation), but with starter kits ranging between $80 and $200, it’s an investment. However, if you want to start with a simple smart plug to control a lamp, the iHome iSP5 costs only about $30, while the Elgato Eve Energy goes for about $50. The benefit of these smart plugs is that you can use them with any appliance that plugs into a standard power outlet, so they give you a lot of room to experiment.

Once you decide on your initial HomeKit investment, the next step is figuring out where to use it.

Again, take it easy at the start so you and your family can get a feel for the experience. There are so many possibilities that it can be tempting to jump in with both feet. Fight that temptation. Before I got my Hue bulbs, I didn’t think there was any point in having just a handful of automated bulbs. After I started playing with them, I realized that I didn’t need many to have a functional setup, since our most-used lights are the two floor lamps in our living room.

So think about where automation could have the most impact in your home. If you go for the Hue bulbs, the living room is an obvious place to start. But maybe there’s a certain light that your family members always forget to turn off, or a basement light that you’d prefer to turn on before you venture down the stairs. If you have a smart plug, you might even want to use it to turn a space heater or fan on and off at certain times.

The keys to an intelligent smart home are communication and thoughtful planning. Nail those, and you’ll find that home automation makes your home a more pleasant, comfortable place that doesn’t require you to run around changing settings and turning things on and off. The tips, techniques, and products that I’ll discuss in the rest of this series are just means to that end.

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