Following mixed results in turning watches and TV into platforms, and statements from Tim Cook that the smartphone-sized opportunity of augmented reality is more of a core technology than a product, and rumors that its self-driving car efforts have been stalled, does Apple have a next killer product? And if there isn't one per se, does Apple have a strategy for the Internet of Things?
It does not, at least in the vein of a communication platform from ambitious cross-industry bodies such as the Open Connectivity Forum, which hatched from two rival industry standards groups driven by chip giants Intel and Qualcomm, or an operating system such as Android Things, the latest IoT evolution from its main ecosystem competitor.
But what Apple does have is HomeKit. It's here. It works. It's well thought-out. And as far as consumers go, it may be enough. The software developer kit, which lets developers of objects communicate with Apple products, received a consumer face with the launch of the Apple Home app. And Apple recently launched a new website to make it easier for consumers to learn more about it and navigate what can be a complex functionality.
With its supported devices, HomeKit delivers just about everything a digitally controlled and communicating home might want -- from the basics of door locks and thermostats to blinds that react to motion sensors and other triggers. For example, one can have the lights come on and the temperature rise when the door lock is opened, and we can expect to see all kinds of standalone buttons and gesture detectors that plug into the technology. A recent addition is support for cameras such as those from D-Link.
HomeKit has also woven other elements of its technology platform into the picture. Chief among these is Siri, which is vying with Amazon's Alexa to be the premiere voice interface for object control. Apple here is staying true to its reputation for detail and security. Siri will not ask you to blurt out a password to authenticate, and it's using radio-free, camera-based code scanning to avoid "man in the middle" attacks. The company also works closely with vendors of products such as the Philips Hue to best interpret a wide range of spoken options for its bulbs that can display millions of colors.
Of course, the Home app on iOS brings the iPad and iPhone into the mix. And Apple TV can act as a scheduling agent when those devices aren't within range to turn products on and off. And really any product hosting Siri becomes a complement for CarPlay and Apple Watch, Siri's homes in the car and on the wrist.
One recently opened Apple technology that isn't get playing into HomeKit is iMessage. It promises to be a key play for Apple should we begin having conversations with inanimate objects even if the bloom is starting to fade from the chatbot rose. However, much like extended Siri conversations, these would likely be limited to a follow-up question or two for clarification rather than having to feign empathy for your refrigerator emotionally blubbering out its latest bout with frost build-up. Another critical part of the Apple success formula that hasn't been fully leveraged for HomeKit is the Apple stores. Sure, they sell a number of HomeKit-compatible products, but it's difficult to demonstrate them live without, say, the lights in the store flashing on and off as they might under the fingers of a curious five year old
The dream of home automation is an old one. Former PC Magazine editor and now Ziff Brothers investment analyst Michael Miller once told me that the first article he ever published was on home automation. That was in 1979. The upending of home automation from holistic security-derived systems to app-enabled smartphone accessories on open standards has surely allowed more people to experiment with elements of home control. This has encouraged traditional security vendors such as ADT and Vivint to begin supporting products like the Echo.
But Apple may not even need to sell to customers directly. Much as it has worked with automakers to preinstall CarPlay support, it is now working with home builders to install a stub of HomeKit-enabled devices, say, a door lock, thermostat, and lights, into new homes so that future homeowners will find a series of companion products waiting for them to control when they are given the keys. Or, rather, the Wi-Fi passcode that will let them remotely control the door locks.
HomeKit represents an Apple in transition. It is a company that is still focusing on its own products and their attendant operating systems to be sure. But it is also looking at opportunities to become a platform provider beyond its own app store. That may not make Apple an infrastructure company, but it continues to serve its customer and build loyalty while competitors are still at the starting gate.
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