Over the past few years, the home automation accessory market has been exploding. Only a few short years ago, consumers choices were limited to either complicated older systems like X.10 or vendor-specific solutions like Philips’ Hue lighting — decent solutions that worked well but forced users into their own relatively closed ecosystems.
Fortunately, about three years ago Amazon, Apple, and Google came along and began to change the landscape by unveiling their own home automation platforms that focused on the methods used to control home accessories, rather than the individual accessories themselves. Each of these new ecosystems promised to not only be a unifying force that would allow consumers to mix and match the best home automation accessories for their needs without worrying about vendor lock-in, but also to add an unprecedented level of control through voice assistants and more advanced automation routines.
This week we’re going to take a look at some of the features that each home automation platform brings to the table. Today we’ll offer some background on each, and in our next part, we’ll go through specific features to look for in a home automation ecosystem, and how each of the solutions stack up in those areas.
For our purposes, we’re looking at only the “big three” in terms of home automation — those services that provide hardware-agnostic accessory support and focus more on unifying home automation than selling their own hardware. While we’re aware that others exist — and some individual vendors have even begun cooperating with each other — we still feel that consumers are best served by the more agnostic platforms that Amazon, Apple, and Google provide.
Apple was technically the first on the scene with a unified home automation platform in the form of HomeKit, unveiled at the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference in June 2014 and released as part of iOS 8 later that year. Apple’s HomeKit plans were ambitious from the beginning, promising not only voice control using the well-known Siri assistant, but also a framework for devices to communicate with each other, set up automation rules, and even be controlled remotely from outside the home.
Although HomeKit made its appearance in 2014, however, it wasn’t until almost a year later that the first HomeKit-compatible accessories appeared. This was largely due to Apple’s focus on security, which required vendors to re-engineer existing accessories to include the hardware authentication and encryption chips needed for HomeKit support — a strategy that has understandably slowed down HomeKit adoption by third-party vendors, and keeps the availability of accessories limited compared to the competing platforms.
Apple’s initial approach with HomeKit was the opposite of Amazon’s and Google’s — instead of releasing a speaker, Apple relied on the installed base of iOS devices for voice control, and relied on third-party vendors to provide their own app interfaces. It wasn’t until iOS 10 in 2016 that Apple unveiled its own Home app, and of course Apple’s answer to the Amazon Echo and Google Home came in the form of its relatively expensive HomePod speaker, which debuted only a few months ago.
That said, considered purely as a platform, HomeKit started strong and remains so today — it’s still leaps and bounds ahead of the competition in advanced automation features. This is a particularly good thing since Apple is slower to roll out new HomeKit capabilities — they’re released only once a year, included in Apple’s major iOS updates. Unfortunately, however, like most things Apple, when it comes to HomeKit, those who aren’t ready to be at least somewhat invested in the larger Apple ecosystem need not apply.
Amazon’s home integration strategy had very humble beginnings, starting as a simple voice assistant that could do little more than turn on compatible lighting accessories. It was extremely basic compared to Apple’s HomeKit, although it boasted an arguably better voice assistant in general and was able to offer actual home automation devices right out of the gate — beating Apple to the punch in providing a usable solution.
Amazon’s goal was to create a voice assistant, first and foremost, and in fact it wasn’t until six months after Amazon launched Alexa on its first voice-activated speaker that home automation features were added to the platform in April 2015. Initial home automation support consisted of nothing more than giving voice commands to turn accessories on and off, and later making adjustments to things like lighting levels, with more advanced features like routines not getting fully fleshed out until late 2017.
Alexa remains an actively growing platform, however, with the company continually tweaking and adding new functionality on the voice assistant side. Amazon’s openness to allowing pretty much anybody to include Alexa support in their hardware means that it’s able to boast a huge collection of compatible accessories, with more appearing all the time.
Despite its acquisition of Nest several years ago, Google was surprisingly late to the home automation market. The search giant took an approach similar to Amazon, releasing a Google Home assistant speaker in late 2016 designed to compete directly with the Amazon Echo. Google Home provided control for a few third-party accessory vendors out of the gate, although Amazon had a commanding lead.
However, Google has been rapidly catching up, since vendors can add Google Home support to their products easily via software updates, and it quickly leapt ahead of Apple’s HomeKit in the number of accessories supported, since until recently Apple still required entirely new hardware models.
Unfortunately, like Amazon, Google Home launched with only very basic home accessory control, and has lagged far behind the other platforms in offering support for more advanced home automation features, with routines only arriving earlier this year, and still being quite limited compared to what Amazon and Apple both offer.
That said, Google Home is an actively growing platform, and Google seems intend on rapidly expanding it going forward — but whether this will be enough to catch up to Amazon, which seems to be moving at a similar pace, remains to be seen.