Smart Plug Update Leads the Way for Wide Apple Smart Home Support

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3Q 2018 | IN-5218

Last week, Wemo, the smart home unit within Belkin, released an update to its Wemo Mini Wi-Fi Smart Plug. The update is the first implementation of a software-only method to gain Apple’s HomeKit security certification for smart home devices. Despite the appeal, the usefulness of smart plugs, and their role in the expanding smart home adoption, software upgrades to a smart plug would not normally register as a starting point for a significant shift in the smart home market—except that in this case, it is.

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First Over-the-Air (OTA) Apple HomeKit Software-Only Certification Rolled Out

NEWS


A few short weeks ago, Wemo, the smart home unit within Belkin, released an update to its Wemo Mini Wi-Fi Smart Plug. The update is the first implementation of a software-only method to gain Apple’s HomeKit security certification for smart home devices. Despite the appeal, the usefulness of smart plugs, and their role in the expanding smart home adoption, software upgrades to a smart plug would not normally register as a starting point for a significant shift in the smart home market—except that in this case, it is.

One Million Existing Wemo Mini Smart Plugs Now HomeKit Upgradeable

IMPACT


Wemo made its upgrade available to its Mini Wi-Fi Smart Plug customers in late July. The update is enabled through a new, downloadable Wemo app available from Apple’s App Store, and, through a firmware upgrade to their installed devices, existing users will be able to connect their smart plugs into the Apple Home app. This app has been part of iOS since iOS 10 was launched in 2016, and it is supported on iPhones, iPads, Apple Watch, and HomePods. The Home app provides central management and control for any smart home devices certified within Apple’s Mini Wi-Fi Smart Plug HomeKit framework. Previously, certification has required device Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) to include the MFi proprietary chip from Apple in any device.

The ability to support a software-only HomeKit integration means not only that OEMs can avoid the cost and complexity of building the MFi chip into new products, but also that existing, already installed smart home devices can be upgraded into the HomeKit framework. Wemo says that the more than one million Wemo Mini Wi-Fi Smart Plugs, purchased and installed since its introduction in early 2017, can now be integrated within Apple’s HomeKit framework. This integration means that Wemo devices can be controlled not just from the Apple Home app but also through Apple’s Siri voice control platform. According to the company, Wemo will deliver the same functionality to other products such as the Wemo Wi-Fi Smart Dimmer later this year.

Until now, Wemo customers looking to link their Wemo devices with Apple’s HomeKit platform had to purchase an additional gateway device. Having never installed the MFi chip in any of its devices, Wemo did move earlier this year to extend Apple Home control to its offerings by releasing a bridge device which extended HomeKit capabilities to Wemo’s range of light switches, dimmers, motion sensors, and smart plugs into room and scene configurations.

The move was not unique, as Signify (then Philips Lighting) did the same in 2015 when it rolled out a new Hue bridge to ensure its systems worked with HomeKit. However, in the Hue case, although a bridge had always been required for its smart lights to operate, the upgrade added the Apple MFi security chip. For Wemo customers, the sole purpose of the US$40 Wemo Bridge was to bring Wemo devices into the HomeKit framework. For existing customers looking to leverage the Home app, it offered a way to support integration, but at a cost. Now with software upgradeability to HomeKit certification, end users no longer must turn to such dedicated devices.

Install Base Integration and Smart Home Privacy

RECOMMENDATIONS


Apple HomeKit is the foundation of Apple’s smart home push; however, the requirements around certification and in particular the Apple proprietary MFi chip architecture raises the cost and complexity for device OEMs looking to add HomeKit capabilities. The result has been that, despite its significant and high-spending user base, Apple has long lagged behind direct smart home rivals such as Amazon, Google, Samsung, and others in bringing smart home devices to its platform. The company was aware of the impact of its MFi chip requirements; Apple had announced in June 2017 that a software-only approach would be part of iOS 11, and the company delivered with the 11.3 upgrade to iOS when it launched in April 2018.

The MFi chip was central to Apple’s framework that enables end-to-end encryption from device to cloud and ensures that devices within that framework meet its security standards. The chip was linked to a permanent and unique identifier that customers would enter into the Home app to certify each device. This changes with the new software implementation; now, a unique code is generated each time the device is returned to factory setting for reinstallation.

But Apple’s HomeKit framework, while costlier and more demanding of OEMs, did deliver some benefits to Apple and its customers. The architecture supports a smart home implementation that is closely integrated and managed for efficiency and also enables encryption between devices and the HomeKit platform. Data relating to the use of devices within the HomeKit framework remains on those devices and such control devices as iPhones and iPads.In addition, no consumer data is stored in the cloud, and so no user data is shared with third parties for targeted advertising or other potential revenue streams. The new software-only approach promises to maintain that architecture without the additional hardware requirements.

The ability to ship and upgrade existing smart home devices using the new software-only certification model is a significant shift in the manner in which Apple will grow its smart home market among OEMs and consumers alike. The ability to draw in existing smart home devices as well as those yet to ship is a major advantage. What the Wemo Mini Wi-Fi Smart Plug news shows is that the upgrade can be applied to low–price point devices with limited processing and memory support.

With the ability for device manufacturers to add HomeKit functionality to already deployed products, there is potential for Apple to more fully leverage its position in devices, computer, and entertainment into a more appealing and more widely adopted smart home platform. It also propels their vision and support for greater end-user data control and privacy to more easily adopted and deployed smart home systems.

While this step away from the restrictions of the MFi chip had been promised over a year ago, its arrival is worth noting all the same—not just because of the appeal to device manufacturers for easier HomeKit access and certification across both OEMs’ new and installed devices, and not just for the reach and scale of Apple’s user base, although neither of these may change the smart home market. Mostly this is important because within the smart home there is potential for end users to grow increasingly wary of the data being collected from their homes and of the way that data may be leveraged by a range of companies. Apple’s approach, while still putting itself at the heart of the smart home, may offer a model that will increasingly appeal to data collection–wary end users without the limited choice and higher pricing that, until now, has been restricting the appeal of the HomeKit platform.

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