Apple HomeKit explained: How does it work and what products are HomeKit ready?

Hot on the heels of the home automation trend, Apple introduced a new system last autumn - called HomeKit - that will enable you to have wireless and electronic control of your home, household features, activities, appliances, and more.

HomeKit is not yet available for consumers. But if you're still wondering how it works and what it can control, Apple has outlined much of that information through developer sessions at the Worldwide Developers Conference last June.

We've taken that information and laid it out below, with the goal of helping you better understand HomeKit.

What is HomeKit?

Home automation

Apple developed the HomeKit framework so it could simplify the current state of home automation.

With HomeKit, Apple created a common language that smart devices from any manufacturer can understand and support. HomeKit also leverages Siri, Apple's voice assistance, so you'll be able to control smart devices with just your voice.

Imagine having a house chock-full of smart devices (like a light bulb or smoke alarm) from multiple manufacturers (like Honeywell or GE), but they can actually understand each other and work together.

What's more - you can tell these smart devices what to do using Siri. That's home automation. HomeKit is basically all about making your home automation experience more consumer-friendly.

iOS

It was thought that Apple built the HomeKit system into iOS 8, but it looks like this system won't go live until iOS 9 releases.

It will be able to guide you through the process of configuring and naming HomeKit-enabled devices and every room in your house. The idea is that HomeKit will provide you with the ability to remotely control your home and all the smart devices inside it, meaning you'll no longer have to use several individual apps to control all the smart devices in your home.

With HomeKit, Apple plans to simplify things and lett you control anything compatible in one fell swoop.

Apple TV

HomeKit support was quietly added to the Apple TV when iOS 8.1 and Apple TV 7.0.1 rolled out.

Some reports have therefore claimed Apple TV will serve as a smart hub of sorts (similar to how Google is positioning the Nest smart thermostat to be a control center). But that's not the full story.

It seems like you'll use Siri through the Apple TV to control your HomeKit devices while away from home, but Apple TV won't be required to control HomeKit in general. Apple told ArsTechnica that Apple TV would act as an intermediary, letting you issue Siri voice commands to your home from a remote location.

Apple TV won't really be a smart hub that'll tie your HomeKit devices together but rather an entry point to your local network. The set-top box will simply pass commands to HomeKit devices for you, but your HomeKit devices and Apple TV will need to be signed in to the same Apple ID for such functionality to work.

9to5Mac said a new Apple TV should debut in June, alongside a fancier remote and third-party application support.

HomeKit products

Manufacturers must add support for HomeKit to their smart devices for those devices to be considered HomeKit-enabled.

When Apple showed off HomeKit in 2014, it announced partnerships with many manufacturers, such as iHome, Haier, Withings, Philips, iDevices, Belkin, Honeywell, and Kwikset. The first batch of devices released include:

- Elgato

Elgato and it's Eve sensors will go on sale in the Apple Online Store in July. The first four sensors will be Eve Room (£69.95), Eve Weather (£44.95), Eve Door & Window (£34.95), and Eve Energy (£44.95). Additional Eve products will be available later in the year. The Eve app is now out as a free download from the App Store.

- Ecobee

Ecobee in the US will offer an intelligent thermostat with HomeKit integration. It too will launch in July and cost $249 (£163).

- Lutron

If you're looking to control your lights Lutron will be releasing the Caseta Wireless system that allows you to bark orders like "lights off". The Caséta Wireless Lighting Starter Kit, with HomeKit-enabled Smart Bridge, is available for $229.95 at Apple Stores. The kit includes one Caséta Wireless Smart Bridge, two Caséta Wireless dimmers (compatible with dimmable LED, halogen, and incandescent bulbs), two remotes and two pedestals. To add more lights, you can purchase the Caséta Wireless dimmer/remote kits, also available at Apple Stores, for $59.95.

- iHome

The iHome iSP5 Smartplug fits into your standard wall sockets and will mean you can turn off connected devices via Siri.

- Insteon

The Insteon Hub will let you control a whole manner of things like cameras, switches, sensors and more either via an app, Siri, or schedules like configuring a single device to turn on and off at dusk and dawn or create customized groups of devices that turn on and off at various times throughout the day.

How will HomeKit work?

Names

In HomeKit, everything - such as a home, room, device, function, setting, etc - must have its own name and be stored in a common database accessible by Siri. That's because Siri has to recognise what to control when you speak a command.

For example, if you own a house and a condo, you will need to assign each home a different name (such as "House" and "Condo"). Every single room in all of your homes must have different names as well.

Take note that you can have a "Kitchen" in both homes but can't have two "Kitchens" in one home. All HomeKit devices in your home, which you should have synced and configured through your iOS device, need their own names too.

And every function or service that the device is capable of providing will need a distinct name in HomeKit. So, if you want a cup of coffee, you can name your machine "Coffee pot" and the function "Brew".

Siri will only be able to control your home, rooms, and HomeKit-enabled devices by voice if it can chiefly recognise the pre-programmed names you mentioned during a spoken command.

Grouping

Those of you who are tech-savvy could conceivably have hundreds of names in HomeKit for all your rooms, devices, and functions. To make it easier for you to control multiple things at once, Apple has included a grouping feature in HomeKit.

Grouping allows you to, for instance, turn off all the lights in your house with a single spoken command. That means you won't have to ask Siri to shut off every light in every room in every house you own, one by one. Grouping also includes sub-features called Action Sets or Scenes, so you can control more than just multiples of a single type of device.

Imagine you've assigned a scene called "It's bedtime", and various devices and actions are connected to that scene (such as locking your doors, turning off the lights, and setting your alarm clock). When you tell Siri "It's bedtime", HomeKit's grouping feature will alert your doors, lights, and clock to do their respective tasks (in no particular order).

Secure

HomeKit features privacy and security layers, according to Apple. It also maintains privacy and prevents smart devices from being misused. More specifically, HomeKit includes end-to-end encryption between iOS devices and smart devices.

The HomeKit API also requires that third-party applications for smart devices in use must run in foreground, because this allow will you to know exactly which apps are controlling your devices at home.

Will there be an official HomeKit app?

For a long time there was no evidence to indicate a HomeKit app was in the works. HomeKit was thought to run in the background of iOS 8, controlling your smart devices either directly or indirectly via Siri and Geolocation fencing.

That said, 9to5Mac has claimed Apple plans to let you manage HomeKit-enabled accessories through a new iOS app called Home. So, using either Siri or the Home app, you'll be able to remotely control your home from iOS devices.

The Home app is expected to debut alongside iOS 9 at WWDC. It's currently basic in functionality, but it can wirelessly discover and set up HomeKit-enabled smart devices and create a virtual representation of rooms in your home.

Doing so will allow you to easily organise and connect HomeKit devices. The app can also use the Apple TV as a hub for connecting all HomeKit devices, and it offers help tips for finding new HomeKit devices and apps.

HomeKit will rely upon the Home app to securely manage a smarthome full of accessories and data. Keep in mind this is all just speculation. The Home app might be for internal use only at Apple. It might not even unveil in June.

Apple has confirmed it will make some HomeKit accessory announcements in June, and 9to5Mac said its sources have indicated Apple is working on its own in-house HomeKit hardware as well.

What is a "bridged" accessory?

Apple will allow HomeKit to work with non-HomeKit devices that use competing protocols, such as ZigBee or Z-Wave, according to 9to5Mac.

Apple mentioned last year that those home automation products might be able to connect to HomeKit using a hardware “bridge" of some sort, but it hadn't expanded on that concept until recently. A bridged accessory would connect iOS devices to non-HomeKit devices and therefore allow those devices to be controlled by HomeKit's Siri commands.

A bridge can do this by communicating with iOS devices using the HomeKit protocol, and then communicating with non-HomeKit devices using rival protocols. But there are some limitations to a bridged accessory.

Apple will not allow home automation devices connecting over Wi-Fi, such as a Nest Thermostat, though it will allow some Bluetooth LE devices to be bridged. Apple’s restrictions on bridged accessories are apparently security-related.

Despite these limitations, Apple will allow bridges to connect to other bridges. Each bridge can connect up to 100 accessories, and they can also be controlled remotely.

Are there any HomeKit alternatives?

Apple's HomeKit is unique in that it doesn't have much stiff competition. Sure - Samsung offers a home automation platform called Samsung Smart Home, but it just debuted earlier this year and is still new.

There's also a nifty platform and app called SmartThings, which turns your smartphone into a remote to control for smart devices in your home. Samsung acquired SmartThings last year, and you can read all about that here.

Apart from Samsung and SmartThings, Apple should keep on eye on Google. The Mountain View-based company already has the potential to both topple HomeKit and dominate home automation, thanks to a company called Nest Labs.

Nest

Google acquired Nest Labs - the makers of the Nest smart learning thermostat - for $3.2 billion in January 2014. The high price tag of the acquisition (coupled with Google’s newcomer status to the smart home market) made headlines and confirmed the search giant’s interest in home automation.

Then, in June 2014, Google announced a new developer program for the Nest division. Called "Works with Nest", the program provides a set of APIs that manufacturers can include in their smart devices in order to let you link and remote control them as well as integrate them with Nest and other Google products.

The thing is - if you watch Nest's YouTube video posted on the Nest developers homepage - you won't hear anything about Google or Android. Google is keeping the Nest brand separate, letting Nest spearhead home automation for the company (which will eventually include rivaling Apple's HomeKit).