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Why Apple’s Home Kit is Neither Threat Nor Savior to the Custom Channel

In the rumors surrounding the lead-up to the WWDC there was a fair amount of guessing that WWDC would see some things that are more directly related to what we do in the Residential Systems world. As is always the case when trying to second guess in advance what Apple will do, some of the speculation proved not to be true while some was closer to the mark.

By the time you read this it’s almost a certainty that you’ve seen the reports on the June 2 announcements from Apple’s World Wide Developer’s Conference (WWDC). The big news from that event for the broad market involved forthcoming products across the broad spectrum of Apple’s world, including “Yosemite”, a new version of OS-X for Mac products, iOS 8 for portable devices, and other new programming-related tools and products such as “Swift”, which will make creating apps easier. Thanks to these new OS variants you will see new services and cross-device/platform features along with increased cross-functionality between Mac and iOS through the cloud.

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That is all quite interesting, and while many of you will take advantage of what was revealed at WWDC in your business and personal lives most of the new software’s benefits are out of the scope of things here. However in the rumors surrounding the lead-up to the WWDC there was a fair amount of guessing that WWDC would see some things that are more directly related to what we do in the Residential Systems world. As is always the case when trying to second guess in advance what Apple will do, some of the speculation proved not to be true while some was closer to the mark.

Apple apps, not hardware, step into home automation

There was no mention at the WWDC of either a new version of the AppleTV set-top or the long rumored Apple television display. No mention of an “iWatch”, either. Keep in mind that the WWDC is about software, and not hardware products, so that is to be expected. Yet if these devices are to come out any time soon and involve anything where the “app makers” need to create new apps or revise their wares this is where the software for those devices would be revealed and the silence on those fronts was deafening or the work is going on far off the public radar. We still expect to perhaps see the new AppleTV in the fall, but only time and Tim Cook will tell.

On the other hand, some of the pre-WWDC speculation was correct for two things that did see the light of day: apps to expand Apple’s reach into the “home health” market and a big toe in the water of home control/automation in the form of what we now know will be called “Health Kit” and “Home Kit”. To some degree the basic concept is as was rumored in the pre-show speculation. Some time in the late third quarter of this year or at least before the end of the year we will see the new kits actualized in the form of apps that basically aggregate the operation and output of various devices through their own native apps or data streams and then control or manage them from a single integrated app. There will also be secure pairing, the ability to create scenes, and integration of Siri voice command. On the health side, you can also add “big data” integration so the medical, body function, and fitness data can be cloud-connected with, as explained at the WWDC, a medical center such as the Mayo Clinic so that if the sensor data reports something that requires attention the user can not only be altered, but they might even find their doctor or other medical practitioner calling them to discuss the issue at hand.

To reiterate, there were no announcements of any Apple-branded devices, such as a wearables, bulbs, dimmers, or sensors. Particularly with the manufacturers listed as being initial participants in the home software there were some familiar names such as Schlage and Kickset for locks, Honeywell for HVAC control, Chamberlain for garage door openers, and Osram/Sylvania and Philips for light bulbs. (No hardware participants were mentioned for the health side of things at the WW.)

Beware the Apple Home Kit?

So far, so good, with the exception that in some quarters the mere mention of Apple becoming involved in home systems automation raised concerns about the world as we know it coming to an end with the Cupertino powerhouse making things so simple that what we do on a daily basis will become a DIY project and diminish the value proposition for the custom integrator/installer.

Now that we’ve had a week to digest all of this, it is appropriate to take a bit of a calmer view to see if the “Apple is going to run us out of business!” reactions by some might be accurate.

At least from this seat, let’s start by taking a crack at that with another well worn, but nevertheless true cliche: “A rising tide lifts all boats.” Think of all the attention this has and will continue to receive in the general and business press promoting the virtues of integrated control systems in the home. Yes, Apple’s new software product will inevitably drive some increase in the DIY market for these products, but before even assessing what the Home Kit will do let’s remember that the software/app won’t be available for some months, if not longer. The products, devices, and sensors with software that is compatible with the Apple APIs are also some distance out in the future. We all have time to think this out, formulate a strategy, and implement it.

First, it needs to be said that all of this is only useful in Apple and iOS ecosystems. Their share of the smartphone/tablet market is big but no longer the biggest, and for every iPhone devotee there are two more people who favor or have gone to Android phones from Samsung, HTC, Motorola, and others. That one fact alone means that it is impossible for this new software scheme and the accompanying compatible hardware to fully take over our world. It just isn’t going to happen.

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With that to tamp down the immediate concerns, let’s dig deeper to see what it will do and who will do it. During the various WWDC presentations some of the new technologies and applications were demonstrated. However, both “health” and “home” concepts were only described and not demo’d. If either of these was anywhere near ready for prime time don’t you think that Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior VP for software engineering and to all accounts the star of the WWDC presentations, would have done a demo for something as simple as using an iPhone and Siri to open a lock, dim a light, control the temperature? Sure would have been nice, but it didn’t happen. Use that to guide your judgment on the timing of this as you estimate how long you have to prepare for the projected invasion.

Further, while there were some big names from the device and semiconductor world attached to Home in the WWDC keynote, many more popular names were NOT shown. Nest? Not there, with the speculation that despite Tony Fadell’s former ties to Apple the fact that Google now owns Nest might have something to do with their absence. Any of the numerous brands of lighting and shade control that we are familiar with? Not there. Any mention of the major players in the white goods world such as Samsung and LG? Nada. Aside from the fact that both of those companies are heavily in the Android world with their phones, they have their own closed-silo ecosystems and it remains to be seen if they would open them up for integration with a software scheme from a rival.

Integrators still have a leg up on Apple, for now

Of course, anything is possible, but thinking about that leads us closer to the conclusion. Yes, there is no doubt that the home and health app integration systems may eat into some of your business. However, given the strong likelihood that, particularly in the early stages, the number of participating brands and devices will be slim and the fact that even in the long run some might just choose not to play with Apple means that someone will have to add these devices into the Home Kit or find another way to integrate a home system. Gee, isn’t that you? Isn’t that what you do already?

Particularly in the higher end of the market it is just hard to see how this mass-market aimed approach can function with a totally integrated automation/control/security/integration package that many of you do today with the likes of Crestron, AMX, Control4, Savant, URC, RTI, etc. We just don’t see Home as either being designed to, or be able to fill the role that a true custom programmed system fills.

Are you not in the high-end installations world and are still worried? Stop, take a deep breath, relax, and think. Wireless-based multi-point audio systems as popularized by Sonos have, to some extent, taken a bite out of what us oldsters once called “distributed audio.” No question about that, but look at the parallel to what may be being birthed here. As I crisscross the continents talking to custom firms, it’s hard to find one that doesn’t sell Sonos or a “Sonos-like substance.” Yes, some are sold off the floor and go home in the trunk of the client’s BMW, Prius, or Tesla. However, in many cases a larger percentage of them reach the home in the custom firm’s truck where an installer sets things up, does the network and other configuration and connection tasks, tests things out, and shows everyone in the home how to use it. Of course most of the people with iOS devices and the compatible devices who buy into this approach are likely smart enough to do it themselves, but they don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to do so. That’s what you are in business for, and just as there is likely more money to be made these days from installing and connecting a flat-panel display than selling it, there will be profit in terms of design, specification, installation, and maintenance here, as well.

Moving even further to appeal to custom integration clients, will the devices compatible with Home do what they want? Will they provide valid central station monitoring for intrusion alarms and smoke detectors? Will they be able to talk to gate access devices? Maybe, but at least to start, probably not. Here, even where for whatever reason there is a client request to use Home, it will be your skill at wrangling the SDK and API perhaps in legion with home-brew controllers based on Raspberry Pi, Arduino, or similar platforms. The value proposition for your business is there for certain, perhaps bringing you customization work that you might not have even had if Apple didn’t bring this new set of apps and device control protocols to the fore.

So given that at this point that there is still much more about this that we don’t know than what we do know, where do we leave things? The answer, at this juncture seems to be neither the dire Chicken Little-like predictions that our business is doomed on one hand nor the over-enthusiastic gushing about how this will save the world and grow business logarithmically. As is usually the case, there needs to be a heavy dose of “time will tell.” Without a doubt you may have to adapt some of your business promotion practices and your service offerings, and it is probable that staff will need training and you may have drop some product lines and replace them with ones you currently don’t carry or which may not even offer products to our world quiet yet.

More than anything, a careful hand on the rudder of the ship is needed, along with keeping a constant eye out for not only how Apple begins to solidify exactly what all of this is, but to how the Android world reacts, and how the legacy automation systems hardware and software companies adjust their offerings to meet this challenge.

As with any news of this sort, the best path is to learn what the real story is, formulate the best way for your business to react to the news, and carefully implement the plan with the flexibility to make changes as and when needed. Do that and your “Health Kit” monitor and the monitor of your business should do just fine.

Based in Sherman Oaks, CA, Michael Heiss is a CEDIA Fellow, CE products guru, and contributing editor to Residential Systems.