Like a lot of other techies, I looked forward to the day that I'd be able to control everything in my home from anywhere with just a tap on a smartphone screen or a voice command to a digital assistant. Well, after five-plus years of adding bits and pieces of hardware and software to my home in hopes of having a Jetsons-like future sans flying car, I'm about to throw in the towel until someone -- hopefully Apple -- makes more sense out of all of the entire mess. However, I think Apple is part of the problem right now and definitely not helping to define a solution.
It's a mess!
That's what home automation is right now; a mess. There are too many players with too many different "standards" and nothing to tie it all together. The so-called standards are Zigbee, Z-wave and Insteon, and some accessory manufacturers are producing hubs and appliances that are multilingual and can allegedly work with everything. But frankly, except for certain individual pieces of equipment, nothing works as advertised. Want to hear what I've put up with (and I'm sure others have, too)?
- Two connected light bulbs from the same manufacturer that decide to turn themselves on at random times -- usually at night -- despite not being instructed to do so
- A connected light switch that, despite showing up in all of the various HomeKit apps (Apple: why isn't there a single HomeKit app to run all devices?), will no longer respond to Siri commands, can only be controlled from one app (not from the original manufacturer), and won't let me reset or update it
- Another light bulb that keeps insisting that it needs to have a firmware update, but won't let me install it
- A coffeemaker that tells me not once, but twice each morning within 30 seconds, that my coffee is ready to drink
- A Wi-Fi connected relay device hooked to my old garage door opener that worked perfectly for three months, then decided to just up and die
- Two hubs from different manufacturers that just randomly decide to quit providing control of devices
- A security webcam that has twice scared the living daylight out of me and my wife by intoning something (we're still not sure what) in a disembodied voice in the middle of the night. Fortunately it hasn't decided to give us heart attacks by setting off its 105dB alarm. If it does that, I promise to take it to a rifle range for target practice
- The connected grill thermometers from two different manufacturers: one just decided that it wasn't going to work anymore despite changing the battery in it, while the other decided to die of heatstroke (why design a device made for an oven with a meltable plastic sheath over the cable?)
- An outdoor weather sensor that requires an annual battery change. When I did this after one year, the inside of the unit was coated with rust and I'm surprised it's lasted as long as it has (three years)
- Another weather sensor that consistently gives bad barometric pressure readings because the developers didn't think anyone would use the device at other than sea level (I live at 6,000 feet above sea level and there's no way to compensate for that)
- A security camera with a nighttime infrared light that got so overheated that I could smell melting plastic. I unhooked it before it could set something on fire.
- Another security webcam that worked great on several vacations, then suddenly wouldn't work the last time I went to hook it up. The only solution? I have to call the manufacturer and have them talk me through doing a firmware update. What, you can't post the instructions on the web for those of us who have more than half a brain?
- The Ring doorbell is actually pretty cool and working well, but the accessory "Chime" won't pair with the network and Ring's support staff hasn't responded to two requests for help. Also, a week after I hooked it up, my regular doorbell chime decided to start buzzing. I unhooked the transformer until I can figure out what's wrong.
The faithful workers
To be fair, there are a few devices that have worked faithfully without complaint, day after day:
- The Kwikset Kevo door lock has never failed me, which you'd expect from something as important as a deadbolt lock
- Rachio's Iro sprinkler controller has worked perfectly, and the software keeps amazing me with how it allows me to save water while having a green lawn
- The one "old faithful" WeMo switch that turns a light on every day at local sunset, then turns it off hours later
- A pair of Philips Hue bulbs and a hub that just do what they're supposed to do, although they're not HomeKit compliant
- Two padlocks that work great, one from Noke and the other from Dog & Bone. They're well-designed and made for the outdoors
Apple is focusing on trivialities while ignoring a huge potential market
So what seems to be the problem? A lack of range on the radios on many of the devices and the existence of a lot of active and passive interference makes a steady connection an impossible dream. Some of the best devices have no way to interface with IFTTT so mashing up connections between devices and services is impossible. Others are poorly designed or constructed, while most of the apps seem like afterthoughts.
Seriously, the range of these devices needs to be able to cover even a large home. My house is a modest suburban bi-level on a small lot, but depending on the location of the device and what happens to be in the area, I can be standing right next to a device and have absolutely no control over it from my iPhone. Anybody ever heard of range extenders? Or product testing, for that matter? What's really sad is that both ZigBee and Z-Wave embrace mesh network technology, so each device is supposed to talk to nearby devices, acting somewhat as little range extenders. Guess what? It doesn't work that well.
The problem isn't just with most of the home automation accessory manufacturers. I place a large amount of blame on Apple as well. Apple is focusing on trivialities while ignoring a huge potential market. The company has billions just sitting around and could buy almost every manufacturer of home automation devices outright, then put someone in charge who can take the hodgepodge of "standards" and make something out of it that "just works". But instead, the company came up with a half-baked home automation framework in HomeKit and seems to be doing everything it can to ignore it. Instead of directing the manufacture and distribution of good-looking products that work, Apple is just hoping that other companies will do the work for them.
HomeKit? It's an embarrassment right now. The few manufacturers that actually offer HomeKit compatibility and the ability to control devices through Siri all have their own apps. Although HomeKit compatibility is allegedly suppose to mean that any app can control any HomeKit-compliant device, that seems to be far from the truth. Apple should package a single "Home" app with each and every iOS device it sells that has been tested for compatibility with HomeKit-compliant devices. If it doesn't work with the Apple Home app, it's doesn't get the HomeKit seal of approval. Instead, I find myself using a trio of HomeKit apps, all of which are subtly different in operation and none of which will control all of my HomeKit devices.
Hopefully I'm wrong. For all I know, the company has a team of hundreds of people working on an ecosystem of home-oriented devices that will turn the automated home dream into a reality. But I think I'm right on this; HomeKit is just another example of Apple pushing a framework and then wanting everyone else to do the hard work.
Apple's arch rival Samsung made a brilliant move in the home automation space in 2014 when it bought connected home startup SmartThings and moved it to Palo Alto, CA. SmartThings promptly came out with version 2 of its universal hub at a lower price point and has been quietly at work not only creating its own branded plugs, switches, sensors and webcams, but working on making sure that everything else in the Z-Wave and Zigbee world works with its hub.
Let's look at another name that's paying attention to home automation -- Amazon. Sure, Amazon Echo was a bit of a joke when it first arrived, but its intelligent assistant Alexa now works well with many WeMo devices, Philips Hue, Wink, Insteon, and some little company called "SmartThings".
So, Apple; you can either pay attention to this market now, or you can watch Samsung or Amazon walk away with the home automation market. It's your call. Quit wasting your time, talent and money on "flavor of the day" crap like self-driving electric cars that you may never build or virtual reality headsets that have been the "next big thing" for the past 20 years and still haven't made a significant impact, and focus on something that can really make a difference in everyone's daily life. Leave car making to automobile manufacturers, and realize that virtual and augmented reality isn't everyone's cup of tea. Almost everyone has a place to live. Why not make Apple the name that everyone associates with making that living space comfortable, safe, and convenient, and make Siri the voice of that home? We're waiting.