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17 June 2019

Apple surprises by closing smart home gap with Amazon and Google

It says a lot about the progress of the collective smart home market that we have essentially written the same story the past three years – that Apple isn’t pushing HomeKit hard enough and that it is losing ground to its rivals. However, Apple hasn’t lost this race, despite its sluggishness, and with some new features unveiled at its last developer conference, it might just have turned a corner.

Apple should be leagues behind Google and Amazon. Amazon has stormed out to the front of the pack, after starting as a curiosity – a home for the AI it had developed in its abortive smartphone strategy. And Google has Nest as its Trojan horse – though it has taken until 2019 for Google to sort out where Nest sits inside its ecosystem.

Yet Apple is still within spitting distance. It is still leagues behind in terms of actual shipments, and its HomePod speakers continue to prove lackluster, but by piggybacking on WiFi routers and stressing the angle that it’s the only company that truly values your privacy in this market, it might just start clawing back. What’s more, an integration with Charter in the US hints at its potential leverage via the CSPs.

Apple seems to be emphasizing privacy as a central tenet for its smart home proposition, with the new HomeKit Secure Video API designed to provide on-device video analytics and then encrypted video transfer to the iCloud storage bucket – so that only applicable video that has been protected leaves the home, which should mean a much lower risk of intercept.

The on-device processing is also a notable distinction. The current industry standard is to push the raw video to a cloud-based application, which will then sift through the video to determine if it is worth acting on. For example, a motion sensor in a home security camera might wake the device and prompt it to start recording, streaming this video up to the cloud in case a burglar is about to appear in-frame.

However, when it turns out that it is just you, your spouse, or your kids, going about your usual business, that camera might still keep recording. Many people would not be comfortable with that video data leaving the confines of their own home, given what intimate or private details it might capture, so the on-device processing is a way of removing that concern.

Using such a system, the camera should be able to spot whether it needs to send what it has captured so far up to the cloud – a stranger in the home who needs to be monitored or just one of the residents strolling around in the nude. The concept is that on-device analysis facilitates this, and that the approach is more private, which ties in nicely with Apple’s current brand positioning.

The new system is being aimed at any smart home device with a video camera, and the current promise of free 10-day storage in iCloud is a very big deal for these device vendors, as the monthly subscription costs to pay for cloud storage have never been popular and act as a deterrent to many purchases.

The other major element announced at the Worldwide Developer Conference was the new HomeKit configurations for WiFi routers, which will let Apple, or rather its customers, firewall devices within their smart homes. The idea is to segregate devices, so that if one is compromised by malware or a bad actor, the device can’t overstep its boundaries.

There are a number of companies offering similar systems, usually based around a piece of networking hardware that you plug in to the WiFi router. Norton and Dojo spring to mind, but there could be as many as ten such offerings doing the rounds at the moment. Apple’s decision to apparently include this feature as an option for WiFi router manufacturers will be of great concern to these firms, as there has been no mention of charging a subscription fee for this yet.

The HomeKit Secure Video API is going to be used by new cameras from Arlo (the Netgear spin-out), Eufy, Logitech, and Netatmo (now owned by Legrand). The new router features are going to be used by Euro and Linksys, and interestingly, also by Charter (Spectrum) – the second-placed US cableco.

Given the understood spending habit trends found in Apple user demographics, namely that they spend more, CSPs like Charter should look into leveraging the HomeKit platform as a means to drum up SHaaS sales – as a home with more disposable income is more likely to sign up for one of those lovely higher-ARPU sticky bundles.

The new functions come as Amazon unveiled its Echo Show 5, a $99 5-inch screen version of its Echo boxes, which is sure to prove very popular in the holiday sales. Amazon’s Alexa will also start appearing in LG TVs, in the 2019 range of North American units initially, which is another foothold that Amazon can exploit to further its smart home ambitions.

But Amazon has also been busy adding new privacy features to Alexa, perhaps as a counter to the air of looming public backlash that might follow rumored FTC anti-consumer investigations into the largest technology companies in the US. Even Apple has begun posturing to avoid charges that it is a monopoly, but Apple at least gets to avoid the advertising (Google) and personalized retail (Amazon) accusations.

Alexa now supports requests to delete previous search queries, which if we take Amazon’s word for it, means that someone wouldn’t be able to scroll through your history and discover something you wouldn’t like. However, this does come from the same company that has only just admitted that humans can and do listen to Alexa interactions, in a slow release that felt like a cadence fueled by back-pedaling, and from a company that needs to monitor how people use Alexa in order to improve its performance – as well as improve how it can channel people towards more Amazon purchases.