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Apple pulls massive HomeKit chip U-turn to keep up with Amazon Echo and Google Home

Blink and you'd have missed surprise news

By Kieren McCarthy, 4 Aug 2017

Analysis Apple has made a huge reversal in its HomeKit smart-home technology, in an effort to keep up with Amazon and Google.

The iPhone giant has insisted for years that any third parties wishing to create HomeKit-compatible products have to include a special Apple-specified MFi coprocessor (such as this one) in order to authenticate, connect and transfer information securely.

But suddenly, and very quietly, Apple has dropped that requirement, and introduced software authentication for its system, bringing it in line with rivals. The blink-and-you-miss-it announcement happened at the Cupertino goliath's annual developers conference in June. Toward the end of a 45‑minute session, the momentous decision was given less than 20 seconds.

"Let's talk about authentication now," said Praveen Chegondi, a HomeKit program manager, toward the end of his time on stage (fast-forward the video to 37 minutes in).

"At Apple, security and quality is of utmost importance to us. Our customers trust that their accessories are tested thoroughly by MFI licenses and audited by Apple. To ensure accessories are trusted and self-certified we have adopted hardware-based authentication."

He then dropped the bombshell: "Starting with iOS 11, we are now introducing an alternate method to authenticate HomeKit accessories. Now accessories can be authenticated by software!" he said with a flourish, eliciting a small smattering of applause. "This provides a great option to enable HomeKit and shipping accessories that can be upgraded to HomeKit."

He concluded: "We will be sharing more information about the implementation later," before moving on to the next topic.

Bridge over troubled water

Apple did not let any of its potential partners know about the change – even big player Belkin, which announced just a few weeks before the event that it would, somewhat begrudgingly, sell a new Wemo Bridge so its products could communicate with HomeKit.

Neither has Apple highlighted the sea change in its approach, even though HomeKit was one of the main topics at its dev conference that year. The low-key nature led to folks on smart home forums asking: "Did Apple just open HomeKit?"

It is only now, as companies consider the lead-up to the holiday push, that they have started asking Apple if it will start sharing more details on its new software authentication approach to see whether they can include it in their products this year. As far as we are aware, there are still no specifics available.

So why the sudden turnaround and purposefully low-key announcement? There are three reasons:

  1. Competition
  2. Work still to be done, and
  3. Arrogance

Competition

The decision by Apple back in 2015 to require a specific chipset surprised and infuriated many smart home companies that were looking forward to having Apple's name brand open up the market.

For users, it meant guaranteed builtin security. For manufacturers, it meant significant extra cost in creating a special Apple version of their products, and ensured there was no way to upgrade existing products to work with the system. A software-only approach allows gadget makers to connect their equipment to Apple devices via HomeKit without any expensive hardware redesigns.

While some – like smart thermostat company Ecobee – decided to bite the bullet and create a new product line to incorporate the mandatory HomeKit electronics, the majority of manufacturers decided not to bother, with the result that several years after launch, the number of HomeKit products remained strikingly small.

But then came Amazon's unexpected success with its Echo voice-controlled digital assistant. Just a few months after Apple told manufacturers they had to put-up-or-shut-up if they wanted to enter its ecosystem, Amazon offered a software-only way to connect up smart devices.

As the Echo became a mainstream tech product, Google and Apple scrambled to move away from their vision of a smartphone-controlled home into voice activation. Google launched its Home rival in October 2016 in a bid to connect up with its smart home protocols and standards – including its subsidiary, smart-home poster child Nest.

It took Apple until June this year to launch the over-priced HomePod. Previously, the Californian monster had decided that everyone would have to buy an AppleTV and use an Apple iPhone to access its controlled ecosystem. But even with Siri, the AppleTV was no Amazon Echo, and so the HomePod was developed.

As Apple execs turned their attention to this digital assistant market – having gone cold on HomeKit for several years because of its authentication barriers – the call went out: there must be a way to securely connect HomeKit devices using just software. Do it. And do it now.

Work still to be done

Asked how come Apple insisted for two years that the only way to connect to HomeKit was through specific hardware, and now suddenly software authentication was possible, we were told by the tech giant:

"At the time, we didn't have a way to do that. Then we came up with a way to do it."

And while engineers have been given the instruction to make it happen, and have likely figured out the mechanics of how to do it, the fact is that the actual implementation is still under wraps – strongly suggesting that the order went out and there is still plenty of work to be done.

Arrogance

As we have repeatedly noted, the decision to insist that third parties incorporate a special chipset just to be allowed to work within its eco-system is pure Apple arrogance.

It's the same arrogance that has caused the company to have to repeatedly redraw its plans for music streaming and news articles. Every time Apple decides to enter a market, it persuades itself that everyone is so desperate to access its installed base that they will do whatever it takes – including handing over control and profits.

On occasion – like with the original iTunes setup and the iOS app market – that approach worked. But for the most part, it has failed. And Apple continues to delude itself that it has learned from those mistakes – largely by making changes and pretending that it made them on its own terms. It is a holdover from Steve Jobs' mindset – where Intel was the enemy right up to the point where it wasn't.

In this case, it is very hard for Apple to deal with the cognitive dissonance of having insisted for years that hardware authentication was the only way to be safe and secure in HomeKit – and then turn around and say the exact opposite when the market shuns it.

That's why software authentication is being held out as an "alternate" mechanism for connecting to HomeKit, even though there is no additional benefit and some additional cost to going the hardware route. Apple just can't bear to admit it was wrong.

And so it's not going to. It just hopes that everyone will slowly learn that the biggest hurdle to HomeKit adoption has been quietly removed. Rule number one: never embarrass Apple.

Take it to the bridge

What about Belkin and its Wemo Bridge, which was announced just before the decision to allow software authentication?

The company told us: "We still plan to release the Wemo Bridge product as planned, providing HomeKit compatibility to millions of currently installed Wemo products on the market."

But, it notes: "We intend to introduce native support for HomeKit in newer Wemo products, including those introduced over the last year, as soon as it is possible to do so."

So there you have it. Apple fanbois are no doubt already frothing at the mouth, ready to yell "but no one cares!" And they're right – people won't. If Apple can allow smart home manufacturers to connect their products to HomeKit using just software, everyone benefits.

It means greater interoperability, and that means consumers have less of a lock‑in to one company's system. Competition wins. And Apple's efforts to control everyone and everything have, thankfully, failed again. ®

PS: Apple is reportedly thinking about putting SIM cards and Intel radio modems into its future smartwatches.

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