How would Apple's smart home system work?

After CarPlay, Apple's next push into the Internet of Things market could be home automation.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer
Today a smartphone, tomorrow the centre of your connected home?
Today a smartphone, tomorrow the centre of your connected home? Image: CNET

Apple is reportedly planning a major push into home automation with a new software platform and partner program that's looking to make iOS the control centre for connected devices in the home.

Apple will unveil the platform as part of a "big play" in smart home tech at its Worldwide Developer Conference next month in San Francisco, according to the Financial Times, citing people familiar with the plan.

If the plan unfolds as expected, the platform will offer an easier way to set up and control the raft of iOS-compatible smart devices that have appeared in recent years, including the Google-owned Nest home thermostats and Phillips' Hue wi-fi-connected lightbulbs. Another maker of such connected devices, Dropcam, is reportedly the target of an acquisition by Nest.

The software platform would let iPhone owners wirelessly signal their arrival at home and, for example, switch lights on or activate home security systems.

If the report is correct, Apple's vision for home automation would borrow from its iBeacon system. Apple has been trialling the indoor positioning tech — which relies on low-energy Bluetooth transmitters to trigger a push message to iOS devices directing users to the Apple Store website — at its own retail outlets.

The centrepiece of the home system will be a new version of Apple TV, which may be released later this year and will equip the Apple content hub to handle connected devices other than TVs.

The Financial Times report points to an Apple patent published last year which depicts a home relay server that communicates with phones and tablets to estimate the location of a user and work out from there what signals to send to things such as garage door openers, climate controllers, music systems, and home security systems.

Rumours of Apple broadening its TV portfolio have been around for nearly two years, although no significant new launch has been forthcoming. However, speculation around the smart home platform, and Apple TV's central role in it, lend the rumours more credibility.

To ensure it has compatible home products, Apple is planning to set certification standards for product manufacturers under a similar scheme to its existing Made for iPhone program for makers of iOS peripherals such as headphones. The products would then be sold through Apple's retail outlets.

The move is being viewed as a response to Google's push into home automation with its $3.2bn acquisition of Nest Labs — a company that includes former senior Apple execs among its founders. Apple's other big rival Samsung is also thought to be planning for its smartphones to play a central role in controlling its other smart devices, such as refrigerators and TVs.

Apple's first move on the Internet of Things, however, came with the launch of CarPlay, its systems for dashboards in cars.  

News of Apple's push into the home automation market comes shortly after an old regulatory filing from Google — ahead of its acquisition of Nest — revealed it believed it could soon be serving ads to smart-connected devices in the future in addition to smartphones and tablets.

While a smartphone at the centre of home automation technologies could be a great convenience, it raises the security stakes around connected devices, with a reminder coming from Australian iCloud users on Tuesday. As ZDNet reported, affected iOS owners woke up to discover that their device had been hacked and a passcode added that prevented them from accessing or restoring their devices. 

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