THE SMART HOME DREAM
Mac Life|March 2021
We’ve been promised a united smart home, so why does it seem to be fracturing even more?
ALEX COX

Peering through the mist, we’re always looking for signs of unity in the smart home world. If the fractured smart home landscape could unite itself as a compatible whole, without the need to add rickety bridges to join together its many islands, that would be a good thing. It would mean a wider choice of hardware, stronger platform understanding, widespread compatibility, and (probably) an easier point of entry. One app could, as Apple’s Home app tries to do, manage every smart device in your home — and you could choose the app you wanted to use.

Pie in the sky stuff, right? The entire history of computing is one of rival platforms battling it out; today, after 40 years of the home computer, it’s a punch–up between the Mac, the PC, Linux, multiple incompatible phone systems, and a ream of consoles. We’ve not even begun to converge on a single point. One platform does not rule them all, because playing nice isn’t in the best commercial interests of the parties involved. Just looking at Apple, because it’s the easiest example to cite, it has very sensibly placed a huge emphasis on the security of its platform. But it’s done so by (in the early days) requiring special hardware to be present in any device supporting HomeKit, and later requiring certified, licensed firmware. Whether you see this as Apple taking its pound of flesh really depends on your level of cynicism, but we’ve often cited its standoffish approach to letting folks play nice with HomeKit to be at least partly to blame for the still–slim range of fully compatible hardware.

THE CHIPS ARE DOWN

But there’s a ray of hope… At the end of 2019, a working group named Project Connected Home over IP (or CHIP) was assembled by the Zigbee Alliance, with the aim to “develop and promote the adoption of a new, royalty–free connectivity standard to increase compatibility among smart home products, with security as a fundamental design tenet.” Project CHIP is looking to make an open source standard, meaning it will be available for all to use, and for all to contribute to. If all goes to plan, CHIP will offer developers the chance to get a secure hook into all of the major smart assistants. Given that CHIP has attracted support from Google, Apple and Amazon, along with a list of Zigbee’s existing associates like Samsung, Signify (parent company of Philips Hue) and Somfy, it’s not a small–fry enterprise.

How committed are the members? A glance at those working on the project’s GitHub page suggests they’re highly involved. Apple in particular is getting stuck in to the development of CHIP, with many Apple engineers contributing vast chunks of CHIP’s code. Others from Mountain View (which suggests they’re working from Google’s campus) have added code of their own, as have many Shenzen-based coders, presumably representing members like Huawei. We’re confident that CHIP will come to light soon enough. It’s set to apply to all kinds of smart home equipment initially, covering lighting and electrical, thermostats, door locks, security systems, TVs, access points, bridges, and more.

> Hot hubs

HomePod mini

$99, apple.com

HomeKit’s Achilles’ heel could be healing. The mini is a tidy and (crucially) cost–effective bridge which brings access to HomeKit devices outside of the home. It’s a great Siri speaker, too.

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