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Apple’s HomeKit is still working on the basics

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Apple HomeKit photos

Apple never shows up to CES, but the last couple years, it’s still managed to have a quiet presence through HomeKit. That’s true this year, too, but it’s been really quiet, failing to drum up anywhere near the excitement of something like Amazon’s Alexa.

HomeKit is Apple’s platform for letting all kinds of third-party smart home gadgets — from security cameras to ceiling fans — talk to each other through your iOS devices. It’s done a great job of making the experience of installing and using these gadgets really easy, but it’s been limited by a lack of variety when it comes to what you can buy.

CES is where that tends to change, as companies building HomeKit gadgets turn up to show off their newest products. This year, there are more than a dozen companies presenting HomeKit devices — but, for better or worse, they’re all pretty boring.

iDevices Instant Switch render iDevices

Lighting was the biggest category for new products, with several new lights and switches being announced for HomeKit. Leviton announced two in-wall dimmers and a switch; Incipio showed off an in-wall dimmer; iDevices presented plans for a stick-on wall switch for wireless devices; Sylvania said it would begin to offer a HomeKit bulb; and LIFX recently announced plans to begin enabling HomeKit on its latest generation bulbs next month.

Other big smart home categories — thermostats, locks, smoke detectors — received new entries: a smoke detector from Netatmo, two thermostats from Carrier (yes, that Carrier), and locks from Yale and Kwikset. There were plenty of sensors, too; ConnectSense had a water sensor and a temperature sensor, Fibaro had a water and motion sensor, and contact sensors for doors and windows. There were also new power options, including a four-outlet power strip from Incipio and an outlet / USB charger from PureGear.

Ring Floodlight Cam Ring

This biggest area of expansion HomeKit saw this year was around cameras, which are new to the platform. Withings announced a new version of its friendly looking Home security camera that just adds HomeKit support, and D-Link announced a much less friendly looking camera. The most interesting addition was from Ring, which debuted a dual flood light with a mounted camera underneath, meant for use outdoors.

HomeKit’s progress this year has been in fleshing out existing product categories and entering one big new one. That’s all very useful progress. Homeowners need options when it comes to what devices look like and the subtleties of what they can do. Additional in-wall switches and locks are particularly great, since they integrate with a home in a really natural way.

Incipio CommandKit Wireless Smart Power Strip Incipio

What HomeKit continues to miss is the kind of excitement that’s popped up around Amazon’s Alexa — a voice assistant, but also a tool for controlling and automating the home. There’s an argument to be made that Apple’s slow and steady approach, and eye toward security, is valuable. The smart home remains a niche market is still in very early stages when it comes to functionality.

But there’s an argument that, right now, Alexa is inside of a refrigerator and is capable of controlling ovens, washing machines, and vacuums, while HomeKit is still adding new power outlets. And that kind of momentum could give Amazon an edge.

It’s not a perfect comparison, since the kind of small devices that HomeKit has been succeeding with — outlets, switches, bulbs — don’t directly integrate with Alexa and typically require some sort of bridge. But Apple hasn’t indicated when, or if, it’ll start going after the types of big appliances that people use day in and out, like fridges, ovens, and vacuums. Clearly, their manufacturers are interested in smart home integrations. But so far, only Amazon is taking them up on it.