Get Started with HomeKit – Take Control of Apple Home Automation

Get Started with HomeKit

Perhaps I’ve enticed you into considering home automation with Apple’s HomeKit, but where to begin? Before you start shopping for devices, familiarize yourself with what HomeKit is, what it does, and how HomeKit devices are arranged.

Understand What HomeKit Is

HomeKit is many things, but for the sake of simplicity, it’s a smart home platform. Think of it as an operating system like iOS for your iPhone or macOS for your Mac, but designed to manage your home automation gizmos.

It’s far from the only home automation platform; others include Amazon Alexa, Belkin Wemo, Google Home, Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, and X10. Like most modern home automation platforms, HomeKit aims to integrate devices from several manufacturers, but you can only manage HomeKit using Apple’s own iOS, macOS, tvOS, and watchOS devices.

HomeKit’s main competitors are Amazon Alexa and Google Home. All three try to do the same things: offer a certain standard of quality for home automation devices, offer a unified interface for working with devices from different vendors (so you don’t need a separate app to control each device), and integrate control of those devices into each company’s voice assistant.

These home automation platforms often overlap. For example, Philips Hue lights interact with everything I’ve mentioned above except Wemo and X10.

Understand What HomeKit Does

Apple’s HomeKit home automation platform gives hardware manufacturers and software developers a unified way to interact with home automation devices on iOS, macOS, tvOS, and watchOS.

Home automation isn’t new—the X10 home automation protocol has existed since 1975, and I’ve heard from readers who controlled home automation setups with Apple II computers!

By comparison, HomeKit is a baby. It debuted in 2014 with iOS 8, although HomeKit-compatible devices didn’t start hitting the market until after iOS 9 was available in 2015. Even then, HomeKit control was rudimentary, relying on third-party apps and Siri. iOS 10 and watchOS 3 introduced Apple’s Home app, which offers a centralized, standardized way to manage and control HomeKit devices.

Standard is good, but HomeKit is far from a complete home automation solution. Even though you can use the Home app to control compatible devices, every home automation vendor provides its own software, and some of those solutions offer capabilities beyond what the HomeKit framework provides. I cover one of those—the Eve app—in Automate with Eve for HomeKit.

The other downside of HomeKit is that not every smart home device is compatible—manufacturers must work with Apple to have their devices certified for HomeKit, and Apple has until recently been quite strict about which devices were certified. As a result, the HomeKit ecosystem doesn’t offer as many options as more established and more open standards like X10.

Why use HomeKit at all? Here are a few of the most compelling reasons:

  • Security: Apple has arguably the best security of any large consumer-oriented tech company, and HomeKit is similarly the most-secure smart home platform right now. Remote access to HomeKit devices is disabled by default, and can’t even be turned on unless you’ve enabled two-factor authentication on your Apple ID.

    This advantage came into sharp focus with a DDoS attack that interrupted internet service in the United States (see the TidBITS article Massive DDoS Attack Blocks Access to U.S. Web Sites). That attack was made possible thanks to a plethora of unsecured Internet of Things devices like DVRs and IP cameras.

    The HomeKit ecosystem has grown more slowly than some other smart home platforms because each device must be tested and approved by Apple before being allowed to play with HomeKit. However, after seeing the destructive potential of insecure internet-connected devices, I think we can better appreciate Apple’s rigorous approval process.

    That said, HomeKit isn’t perfect, either. A HomeKit exploit was discovered in late 2017 that could enable anyone who knew an email address associated with your HomeKit home to activate scenes in your home. The good news is that Apple fixed it quickly. Some vendors may not have even fixed it at all—devices running Google’s Android are notorious for often getting stuck with outdated software.

  • Integration: All HomeKit-compatible devices work with the built-in Home capabilities of iOS, iPadOS, macOS, tvOS, and watchOS, giving you quick access to your favorite accessories and scenes via the Home icon in Control Center. Also, you can control your devices using Siri.

  • Sharing: The Home app makes it easy to manage shared access to HomeKit devices. You can add and remove people, and decide whether or not they can edit your configurations. Changes you make to your HomeKit setup are automatically applied to everyone with whom you’re sharing.

  • Interoperability: The Philips Hue app is pretty good, but it can’t control my ecobee thermostat. With HomeKit, I can set up a scene to turn both of those devices on or off at once. HomeKit’s goal is to let you forget about vendors and focus on functionality. Also, since HomeKit is an open framework, developers can create HomeKit control apps, some of which are more capable than Apple’s Home app, such as the Eve app.

  • Ease of Use: Home automation is complicated, but HomeKit offers the simplest, most unified home automation experience on the market. Apple’s Home app may not be the most powerful home automation app, but it won’t intimidate the casual user. And most HomeKit devices are plug-and-play.

Learn the HomeKit Hierarchy

Understanding a bit of necessary terminology will help you get the most out of the rest of this book. (Don’t worry, it’s relatively straightforward.)

Apple has organized HomeKit into a hierarchy that gives you various levels of control over your devices:

  • Homes: The highest level, a home is a geographically distinct collection of rooms and devices you want to control together. A home could be your residence, but it could also be an outbuilding, an office, a vacation home, or some other structure.

  • Zones: Zones are collections of Rooms (see next item). For instance, all the rooms downstairs in your house could be a zone.

  • Rooms: A room is, as you’d guess, a section of a home. For example, you can set up your living room, bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen as rooms in your home.

  • Accessories: Accessories are the home automation devices in a room, like smart bulbs, wall plugs, locks, thermostats, ceiling fans, and so on.

  • Services: Services are the functions of an accessory. For most devices, the accessory and service are indistinguishable—for example, a wall plug is an outlet that’s either on or off. But some accessories offer multiple services—for example, my Eve Room sensor provides four services: Current Temperature, Current Relative Humidity, Air Quality, and Battery Level.

You can also group accessories to make operation simpler. For instance, if you have three Hue bulbs in a single light fixture, it makes sense to group them so you can control them as one. But if you dig a little deeper in the Home app, you can still manipulate each one individually. See Tweak Accessories.

The HomeKit hierarchy is a bit of a pain, but understanding it is essential to a smooth HomeKit experience, especially when you use Siri. I can tell Siri to turn on the laundry room light or make my living room blue, and it understands my commands perfectly. (Well, most of the time. It’s still Siri.)

The last two terms you need to know are outside of the HomeKit hierarchy, but are the most important:

  • Scenes: A scene is a collection of actions; for instance, my Good Night scene turns off most downstairs lights, dims the lights in the living room so they’re just light enough to see at night, and turns on our dehumidifier. Scenes are one of the most important concepts in home automation, and I cover them extensively in Set Scenes.

  • Automations: Automations invoke scenes automatically according to a user-specified schedule or other trigger. I cover these more in Set Your Home on Autopilot. When set up carefully, automations can remove even more friction from your life.

Understand HomeKit in Practice

So you understand that HomeKit is a platform that helps integrate home automation devices with each other and Apple’s operating systems. But what does that actually mean for you?

Apple provides many ways to interact with HomeKit:

  • The Home app on iOS, iPadOS, macOS, and watchOS. (The iOS and iPadOS apps are the focus of much of this book.)

  • Control Center in iOS, iPadOS, and tvOS which offers quick access to Home actions.

  • Siri, which lets you issue commands to HomeKit devices on iOS, iPadOS, macOS, watchOS, tvOS, and HomePod.

Third-party developers can also create their own HomeKit-compatible apps. Some examples of this include Eve for HomeKit, Joerg Wissemann’s myHome, and Matthias Hochgatterer’s Home+ app.

Some accessory manufacturers create HomeKit apps that work with all HomeKit devices, but add special features for their own devices. For example, the Eve for HomeKit lets you update the firmware for your Eve devices and grants access to other features, such as monitoring how much power is consumed by devices connected to Eve switches.

Independent apps, such as myHome, offer more features and capabilities than Apple’s relatively simple app. As you develop as a home automator, you may want to try these out for yourself to get things exactly how you want them.

The good news is that apps built on HomeKit usually talk to each other, since they’re all just front ends for the same framework. So, the Eve for HomeKit app sees the accessories and scenes that I set up in Apple’s Home app, and vice versa; and when you change the name of a device in one app, all other HomeKit apps reflect that change.

However, this isn’t always a perfect experience. For example, I was able to set up an automated task in the Eve app that I couldn’t create in Apple’s Home app—see Automate with Eve for HomeKit. I can see and delete that automation in Home, but I can’t edit it, because Home doesn’t support those aspects of HomeKit! Isn’t that weird?

There is a lot to explore in this space, but for the sake of simplicity and sanity, I’m going to focus on Apple’s built-in apps. Do not switch between home automation apps unless I instruct you to do so, at least until you have a comfortable grasp on HomeKit. I’ve helped support many friends and readers with HomeKit, and one of the most common sources of trouble is when someone jumps between different apps to configure and control devices. Things always inevitably get misconfigured or confused.