Apple’s Smart Home Efforts Get A Much-Needed Boost At WWDC

Screen capture of Apple CEO Tim Cook, from the company’s digital WWDC event.

Amidst the hoopla and grand expectations for this year’s WWDC, there was big news in the smart home space, which deserves some focus. Held digitally, the one hour and fifty-minute event was a smoothly produced affair, with almost a documentary-style feel to it. The absence of a live audience certainly did not reduce the impact of the big announcements made at the event.

The biggest news, of course, was the formal announcement that Apple will transition to “Apple Silicon,” and away from Intel processors for its Mac desktops and laptops (my colleague Patrick Moorhead shared his post-WWDC thoughts here). It’s easy for the smart home news, shared about an hour into event, to get lost, amidst the news that Apple CEO Tim Cook rightly called “historic” for the company. All of that said, let’s dive into the critical smart home-specific news from WWDC.\

HomeKit gets a significant adrenalin injection

HomeKit, which was released with iO8 in September 2014, has never quite lived up to its potential. For starters, it isn’t compatible with as many smart home devices as Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant (though that number is growing, and its reputation has improved over the past few years). It’s best suited for those users who basically operate entirely in the Apple ecosystem. It is indeed a natural beginning point for Apple aficionados that are just starting to set up their smart homes. 

Apple announced an update to HomeKit at WWDC, which will enable it to recommend smart home device automation scenarios. Additionnally, the update will allow users to link their video camera to other Apple products when iOS and iPadOS 14 gets released in the fall. This enhancement will more closely align HomeKit with Apple’s legacy brand appeal, ease of use and intuitive product set up. For those who are unfamiliar with HomeKit, the device links a variety of Apple supported devices within your home (including thermostats, security cameras, smart lighting, etc.) to the Home app, which is at the core of the iOS Control Center. The Home app helps you manage smart home products from various manufacturers, and allows users to link multiple devices into logical groups that can be simultaneously controlled.

Apple HomeKit’s Home app.

To widen the net of supported smart home devices, Apple reminded the WWDC virtual audience that it was an energetic supporter of the Connected Home Over IP initiative, a project aimed at making smart home devices work more seamlessly together. Amazon and Google (among others) are members as well, which helps give the initiative credibility and depth.

Participating members of the Connected Home Over IP initiative

One daunting problem most smart home users face is the complexity of automating disparate devices. With the Suggested Automations feature, iOS 14 can provide explicit recommendations to optimize automation’s potential for your smart home devices. For example, a user might want to link the closing of their garage door with turning on the living room lights when they arrive at home.

Another exciting smart home feature announced at WWDC was HomeKit Secure Video, Apple’s attempt at on-device security, with cameras capable of facial recognition. For example, a HomeKit-compatible doorbell can broadcast video directly to your Apple TV so that you see when a visitor has arrived; if that person’s face is in your iOS 14 Photo library, HomePod can announce that specific person is at your door. Apple also disclosed a capability built into HomeKit that permits you to consign an “activity zone” to a smart home camera, which can trigger an alarm or light to go on when motion is detected.  Many third-party security cameras have had this capability for some time, but Apple is making a statement by building this functionality into the operating system.

The list of smart home goodies announced doesn’t stop there

Among the scores of announcements made at WWDC, there were a few other standouts that should be mentioned. These include updates to the AirPods Pro, a pivotal enhancement to CarPlay and a critical redesign to Siri with translation functionality.

AirPods Pro updates included “Spatial Audio” and automatic audio switching capabilities. Spatial Audio is 3D (mostly) audio that generates surround sound acoustics on the AirPods Pro to facilitate a “movie theater experience. Not only that, the technology continually recalibrates based on the precise position of your head to whatever Apple device you are using at that moment. On a less earth-shattering level, Apple also took the wrappers off its automatic switching capability, which transparently changes audio inputs based on the Apple device you’re using at that moment (enabled via your iCloud account).

Visualization of Apple’s new Spatial Audio capability for its AirPods.

In addition to announcing new apps for CarPlay, Apple unveiled CarKey, a capability that allows people to unlock their car wirelessly using the NFC technology built into the vehicle (like the door handle). Face ID or Touch ID enables authentication, and you can share digital “keys” with others via iMessage so that you can allow someone to use your car remotely. This capability is not new (Tesla has had it for years), but Apple’s heavyweight presence in the smartphone market will likely encourage the big automakers to add this feature to new cars. Unfortunately, the first car supported will be the new 2021 BMW 5 Series—not exactly most people’s idea of an affordably priced vehicle.

The last announcement that jumped out at me as a logical smart home feature was the update to Siri. In addition to having a new compact mode (which doesn’t consume the entire screen when you invoke the magic word), it will support audio messages and translation capability. The new Translate app, which even works offline, is reminiscent of Google’s Translate app (which has been available for several years). For years, Siri was the underdog, struggling to compete with Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. Still, that number has been improving. Apple claims Siri processes 25 billion requests per month—a number that is likely to get substantially higher when the new Translate app becomes available.

Lastly, as a part of the new versions of watchOS7 and iOS, Apple announced sleep tracking—one of the most requested features for Apple Watch. Naturally, Apple didn’t stop there; the announced capabilities do much more than simply tracking when you fall asleep and when you wake up. The new “Sleep” app, available for the iPhone and Apple Watch, replaces the Bedtime feature in iOS 13. Users can use the app to create a bedtime schedule and customize a “Wind Down” mode with relaxing podcasts, music and reminders (e.g. brush your teeth). We’ll see how the new software looks after it is released and tested, but it looks promising.

Apple raises the bar even higher in the security and privacy areas

Apple has been a real leader over the past several years in limiting what it permits companies to know about its users. The company took this to the next level on Monday, with the announcement of MacOS Big Sur (which will replace MacOS Catalina) and new features for iOS 14. These new operating systems will include a variety of new features that give consumers better control over their data and understanding over what websites and apps know about them.

Apple also announced updates to Safari that will allow Mac and iOS users to know immediately when third party apps are trying to track them. When an app requests access, the user will be prompted to either grant or deny permission. Another iOS-specific change is that apps will now have to tell users what specific data they might collect about them. Apple compared this to the “nutrition label” found on all foods produced in the United States.

Lastly, with the release of Big Sur, Safari users will be able to generate and access a “Privacy Report.” This report will inform users which website trackers have been blocked by the browser. While this is not a totally novel solution (it’s already in place for browsers like DuckDuckGo and Firefox), its inclusion is a welcome indicator of Apple’s increased focus on privacy.

Some final thoughts

When it’s all said and done, tech historians will likely remember this WWDC as the end (or at least the beginning of the end) to Apple’s 15-year tenure with Intel. As I predicted in my WWDC preview column last week, the announcement poses more questions than were answered. I’ll leave those prognostications to my esteemed Moor Insights & Strategy associates.

Aside from that, what I found particularly impressive at this year’s WWDC was Apple’s unwavering focus on privacy and security, apparent during every topic discussed at WWDC. These issues take on even more importance as Apple expands its efforts in the smart home.

It was indeed heartening to see the HomeKit updates get so much airtime at the event. The fact it got this much visibility suggests the smart home is an essential element of Apple’s ecosystem strategy. Here’s hoping that Apple will continue to give the smart home its due at future high-profile events.