Since HomeKit was introduced with iOS 8, one major missing piece from Apple’s home automation effort has been a built-in app that provides a user interface to the underlying framework. Interacting with Siri is the only Apple-supplied HomeKit UI; users rely on third-party apps instead for all visual HomeKit management.
The downside to this approach is that there isn’t officially one HomeKit app to rule them all, and companies that make great smart home sensors and accessories don’t necessarily make great software. Compare that to Apple’s HealthKit framework which connects various App Store apps to a single dashboard in the built-in Health app. The approach isn’t perfect, but a similar effort for HomeKit would be welcomed.
The good news is Apple’s been developing a built-in HomeKit app for a while now, and a rumor surfaced over the weekend that such an app could finally be ready for iOS 10. As a close HomeKit follower, I’m very curious to see what iOS 10 may have in store for Apple’s home automation effort, but my first thought is that there are a few gems among the current crop of HomeKit apps that Apple may not compete with well even from its position as the platform owner…
At a big picture level, a built-in HomeKit app on iOS is a win overall. Built-in means free, which is an upfront positive for consumers. Presenting the app by default also increases exposure to HomeKit, although an option to hide the app if it went unused would be best (a feature iOS as of yet doesn’t offer).
And while it was an oddity that HealthKit had its own Health app two years ago but HomeKit debuted without a similar Home app in iOS 8 and beyond, including such an app with iOS 10 signals Apple’s faith in HomeKit. Frankly, HomeKit didn’t deserve its own app two years ago either, but the accessory market has matured a great deal over the last year.
HomeKit was introduced at WWDC 2014 in June, then iOS 8 launched three months later in September, but HomeKit was still just a promise and not something you could actually use. Apple introduced and released the framework, but HomeKit accessories weren’t ready for another year.
Now we have HomeKit support from Philips Hue lights, smart thermostats from ecobee (review), Honeywell (review), and iDevices, smart locks from August, sensors from Elgato, smart switches from iHome, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors from First Alert, and plenty more on the way.
You also have separate HomeKit controller apps from each of those companies, each with various features and designs. Bring on Apple’s official HomeKit app for iOS 10.
But Apple won’t be first in creating an iOS app focused solely on controlling everything HomeKit. Matthias Hochgatterer’s Home app is arguably the best on the market (and well worth its $15 price if you’re serious about HomeKit). Hesperus is a free, high quality HomeKit controller that launched on the iPhone last month and has since been updated with a Notification Center widget and 3D Touch support.
Apple’s rumored HomeKit app will be official, free, and built-in, but that won’t necessarily make it the best. Just look at how Apple currently approaches iOS features and all of its platforms with its own apps. Podcasts is one example: no Notification Center widget (which is fine) and no Apple Watch app (which is sorely needed). Even HealthKit’s Health app isn’t perfect: it’s only on the iPhone and there’s no option for an iPad version even with permission.
Third-party HomeKit controllers have other benefits as well. App Store apps like Home and Hesperus quickly mature through regular app updates, but built-in iOS apps require less frequent software updates to the whole platform. The Home app may get better every month, but Apple’s built-in app may only see major changes every 6-12 months. (Apple could optionally release more point releases or untether built-in app updates from system updates and instead go through the App Store to address this.)
Even if apps like Home and Hesperus are better in some ways than Apple’s built-in HomeKit app, it’s possible that HomeKit users will want to use both apps for different reasons. HomeKit settings exist at an account level, so you could configure your HomeKit setup in Apple’s app then use the third-party Home app for its widget and watch app as a supplementary solution.
Hesperus already works this way. Before testing it, I configured my HomeKit setup in the Home app, then launched Hesperus for testing and gave it permission to access my HomeKit data. It unfortunately may require a neighborhood of HomeKit apps to have the best experience for now.
I’m excited to finally see what Apple’s take on a HomeKit app may offer. There’s certainly plenty of room for taking HomeKit further. But I do have one concern: if Apple ships its own HomeKit app, then it should leave HomeKit-focused apps like Home and Hesperus alone. Home intentionally looks like the HomeKit app Apple forgot to make, which I could see being an issue once Apple completes its own app. If that’s the case, then don’t bother. I don’t expect that to be an issue, but we’ve seen unimaginable App Store policies in the past, so it’s worth considering.
For now, we’re five weeks out from WWDC where Apple will introduce iOS 10, so we’ll have to wait and see how things play out. It’s also worth noting that Apple could do something others haven’t done (because it’s not possible) yet: introduce a HomeKit UI (and support in general) to the Mac and Apple TV. Neither OS X (which we expect will gain Siri) nor tvOS support HomeKit yet, and adding support for these platforms would go nicely with introducing a HomeKit app on iOS 10.