There’s been a lot of interest in Apple’s HomeKit home automation system and an equal amount of sticker shock over the realization that it requires an investment in new hardware. Why exactly does HomeKit require new hardware? Read on as we investigate.
What Is HomeKit?
HomeKit is Apple’s entry into the home automation marketplace and is intended to serve as a control system and database that links all of your HomeKit-compatible products with your Apple devices ranging from your iPhone to Apple TV.
The HomeKit system is intended to create a seamless link between your diverse home automation products such that your smart lighting, thermostat, security system, appliances, and internal and external sensors can all work together dynamically to create automated solutions like thermostats that adjust themselves as you drive home, lights that turn off when you leave the zone you’re in, and other conveniences. (For a more in-depth look at what HomeKit is, check out HTG Explains: What Is HomeKit?)
Unfortunately despite consumer excitement about HomeKit and interest surrounding Siri-integration with the system (because let’s face it, controlling your house with your voice is super cool), there’s been one big hangup in terms of adoption: HomeKit is not inherently backwards compatible with the already widely adopted smart home standards like Z-wave and other smart home protocols. Adopting HomeKit means adopting all new hardware (a tough proposition to pitch to people already invested in smart home gear).
Why Is My Old Smart Home Hardware Not Compatible?
Historically, home automation hardware hasn’t had the best reputation in regard to security. The earliest home automation equipment, dating back to the 1980s, simply used unencrypted radio communication and a simple toggle system (which mean someone could “hack” your system as easily as just purchasing a generic controller for the system and trying out the very few combinations of frequencies in use). Over time protocols evolved and things improved, but even in the present the security standards for smart home products and/or Internet-of-Things type devices has been lackluster with a sort of it’s-good-enough attitude and a definite lack of standardization or rigorous testing.
When they positioned themselves for a bid to gain significant traction in the smart home/home automation market Apple put a heavy emphasis on security as that is one of the primary concerns consumers have in regard to putting network-enabled devices in their home: be it light bulbs, security cameras, or thermostats.
As such, both to fend off real threats and the imagined threats that keep consumers awake at night, Apple significant security upgrades in the HomeKit platform that far surpass the simple (or even non-existent) security protocols found on other home networking hardware. Where many companies fail to secure their products at all or use simple 128-bit encryption, all HomeKit certified hardware includes a dedicated security co-processor paired with 3072-bit keys and the very secure Curve25519 key exchange system (which is an encrypted key exchange system layered over the already strong 3072-bit key itself).
If a device is missing the requisite hardware, keys, and Apple certification then it simply isn’t eligible to join your house’s HomeKit universe.
Do I Have To Purchase New Hardware?
Now that we know why Apple Home Kit products require new hardware, the pressing question that’s most relevant to consumers and their pocket books is: do I need new hardware? While at first blush the the answer is yes, it’s a bit more nuanced than that.
Apple requires that all consumer products under the HomeKit umbrella either directly meet the requirements for HomeKit-certification or that their controlling bridges/hubs meet the requirements for HomeKit-certification. As such if you happen to have invested heavily in a popular home automation hardware system with active vendor development you’re most likely in luck (where as if you purchased a hodgepodge of no-name stuff off eBay you’re likely out of luck).
Random smartbulbs with Bluetooth/Wi-Fi support? They’ll most likely never get HomeKit-certification through any means as they are cheap one-off products. The popular and widely adopted Philips Hue smart lighting system? It had HomeKit support by the end of the year and you can now purchase a HomeKit-enabled bridge that links Philips Hue lights old and new to the HomeKit platform. Insteon followed suite with their Insteon Pro Hub that included updated hardware for HomeKit-certification (and brings the entire range of Insteon-enabled products along for the ride).
So in short: products from small companies and/or no-name generic smart home products will likely need to be repurchased or simply left out of your HomeKit system altogether but products from large companies that have a hub/bridge system as a central control point (or that can be linked to a third-party hub/bridge system) can likely be upgraded and linked to your HomeKit system.
Before you consider upgrading everything be sure to check with the manufacturer to see if a HomeKit-enabled controller is already on the market or on the horizon. You can stay abreast of new HomeKit hardware releases (including those hubs you’re looking for) by keeping an eye on Apple’s official works-with-HomeKit support article.
Although it’s a hassle to deal with new hardware and nobody likes spending extra money (especially if they’ve already purchased a bunch of home automation products) we will say that we’re happy Apple is forcing the smart home industry’s hand with this move toward radically better security. If the change wasn’t forced by a company as big as Apple it likely wouldn’t happen at all, and in a few years when very strong encryption is the standard for all home automation equipment we’ll all be better off for it.
Have a pressing question about smart home automation or Apple HomeKit? Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll do our best to answer it.