Apple HomeKit Review: Siri’s New Smart Home Already Needs Renovation

Apple HomeKit Review: Siri’s New Smart Home Already Needs Renovation

The new system isn’t reliable enough yet to get you talking to your connected home

By Geoffrey A. Fowler

Updated June 23, 2015 6:01 p.m. ET
It’s Day One for HomeKit, Apple’s ambitious plan to automate our homes. But it’s been a rough first day.

HomeKit is supposed to help iPhones run lights, thermostats and all sorts of other appliances that can now connect to the Internet. It turns voice-assistant Siri into a genie who makes things happen around the house. You just say, “Turn on the lights,” and presto, they’re on.

Unfortunately, Siri just isn’t very reliable. I’m running the first HomeKit hardware in my house, with hubs by Insteon and Lutron Caséta, but when Siri gets involved, I sometimes want to throw the iPhone out the window. She should know all my HomeKit-connected devices by name, but when I say, “Turn on the air filter,” Siri presents a list of stores where I might buy one.

And when I ask her to simply turn on the lights, she sometimes obliges…and other times says, “Sorry, Geoffrey.” Wasn’t this exactly how things went awry in “2001: A Space Odyssey”?

Apple is trying to do something very hard—and very important—with HomeKit. The smart home is personal tech’s Wild West, and Apple wants the iPhone to play sheriff.  Google,  Samsung,  Amazon and many others also want to run our smart homes, but arguably none of them have Apple’s sway to make a zillion other brands adopt a common set of privacy, security and programming standards. Setting up a smart home today is hellish, and could use a good dose of Apple simplicity.

Maybe Apple still can pull that off, but this first public showing is uncharacteristically crude. Yes, Apple has done the work of creating a common language for home devices—already, competing products light up together because of HomeKit. But for now, Siri is still in the dark. Did Apple bite off more than it can chew? My bet is that simplifying the smart home is so complicated, it’s still years away.

If you’re all in on the Apple lifestyle and insist on future-proofing your smart home now, you’re going to have to buy new stuff. Even if you bought a connected appliance in an Apple store, it may not be compatible—it needs to have the HomeKit logo. Many well-known brands, like Philips Hue and Chamberlain garage openers, are making new hubs or add-on hardware to make existing devices work with Apple’s system. That’s mainly because of the high security and privacy bars the company sets: It requires encryption so that even a hacker sneaking onto your home network couldn’t mess with your appliances.

Several companies have announced HomeKit products (all listed here), but for the moment only two are shipping. Insteon sells a $150 HomeKit hub and Insteon+ app that serves as the brain of a variety of separately sold HomeKit-compatible devices, including light bulbs, plug switchers and dimmers. Still, that’s just a fraction of the gear out there—no door locks or security cameras yet. Lutron’s system is just for its Caséta lights, sold in a $230 pack that includes two dimmers, two remote controls and a HomeKit hub.

Regardless of your particular appliances, you’ll need one other piece of hardware: a $69 Apple TV. It serves as a secure bridge from your iPhone back into the house—by way of Apple’s encrypted computers—when you’re away from your home Wi-Fi network. (The Apple TV won’t be required when Apple integrates HomeKit with iCloud in iOS 9 this fall.)

Things would probably be less confusing if Apple actually got involved with the setup of HomeKit products. It’s doing a lot in the background, but there’s no Home app in iOS 8 like the Health one that helps iPhones track fitness devices. Instead, all the setup happens inside apps made by other people.

The Insteon+ app—which has the ability to aggregate and control HomeKit devices even made by its competitors—guides you to assign each device a name and place. That’s where you learn the HomeKit lingo. There are “devices” which live inside “rooms” which are in “zones” (upstairs/downstairs) inside “homes.” There are also “scenes,” which can combine devices across rooms, like a movie mode for the lights around your TV.

These categories provide the basic grammar when it comes time to operate your home with Siri. “Turn off the lights in the kitchen” activates a group of devices in a room.

As any iPhone owner can testify, Siri is occasionally hard of hearing. She’s gotten a lot better, but she still sometimes confuses words (scene/seen, up/off, lamp/lap). Siri also doesn’t ask for confirmation before she takes action, so I hope she doesn’t one day mishear you saying “Unlock the front door.”

But even when Siri does hear you correctly, too often she just doesn’t understand. She doesn’t yet know what I mean by “I’m leaving home.” Other times, apparently, I’m just saying things wrong: When I say, “Turn off all the office lights at midnight,” she ignores the last part and just turns them all off right away. I learned that I couldn’t say, “Turn the lights to 50%”—you have to say, “Set the lights to 50%.”

Isn’t the whole goal of natural language systems like Siri to avoid making you memorize commands? Apple doesn’t even provide a list of Siri-approved phrasings, so you’re left shouting at your phone like a weirdo.

Then there are just old-fashioned bugs. Even a basic command like “Turn on the lights” causes Siri to occasionally reply, “Sorry, Geoffrey, I wasn’t able to find any lights this time.” 

In my tests, the Insteon and Lutron devices both worked fine when I controlled them with their own apps, suggesting the problem is with how they communicate with HomeKit. On Sunday, an Insteon update addressed some Siri problems, and both companies say they’re working closely with Apple to make performance improvements. That said, Lutron hasn’t yet turned on the ability for Siri to perform certain functions, like operate individual lights or launch lighting scenes.

Clearly, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Apple has already announced some improvements in iOS 9 coming this fall, including the ability to understand getting up, leaving home, returning home and going to bed. An update to the Apple Watch will also let the wrist version of Siri operate your house.

This may surprise you: If you’re building or upgrading a house, you still might want to choose HomeKit gear, even if its capabilities today are limited. Despite the fact that many DIY smart-home control systems have hit the market, they’ve all fallen short.

There’s reason to believe Apple can get things right, and plenty to like in what Apple has laid out. I agree with Apple that voice commands should play an important role around the house. And HomeKit has the right structure to make devices from lots of different makers play well together. In my tests, HomeKit got this deceptively hard function right: With the Insteon+ app, I could create scenes around my house that combined Insteon and Lutron devices.

One more thing: Apple’s approach to privacy couldn’t be more different than that of rival Google, whose Nest system relies on data collection to tease out patterns that can make a house run on its own. HomeKit encrypts every command so that Apple can never see or record your activity. That may pay off, as more people come to realize that their house can spy on them—just like their Facebook accounts and Gmail inboxes. (Nest’s CEO  Tony Fadell says that to be convenient, smart home tech has to “strike a really good balance” between sharing too much and too little data.)

For today, turn down your expectations for what HomeKit can do. Or, as Siri would prefer you say, “Set the expectation level to low.”


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