The first weeks of June are upon us and that means one thing — DubDub, Apple’s World Wide Developer’s Conference — is days away. This has always been Mac Geek Christmas. Back in the “Good Old Days,” DubDub was the High Holiday of summertime. The other was MacWorld, which ushered in the new year in January. But years ago, Steve Jobs withdrew from MacWorld and left us with only DubDub, although the Festival of iPhone has become a traditional event, bookending the summer.
But I digress. It’s DubDub time and the rumors, analyses and readings of tea leaves are dialed up to eleven. We will likely see a nice preview of the new operating systems slated for the fall release. (Remember, there are four now — iOS, macOS, tvOS and watchOS.) Keep in mind that this is a developer conference which means Apple will showcase new features and new technologies needing developer support, like enabling new SiriKit domains, building extensions for Mail or enabling person-to-person ApplePay transfers in your app. Apple will hold back the flashy new stuff that doesn’t need developer buy-in for the iPhone hardware release in the fall. That might include things like multi-user FaceTime chats, snoozing messages in the email app, or sleep tracking for watch.
There’s lots to talk about that might happen at WWDC, but I’m going to focus on one near and dear to my heart — HomeKit. Three years ago, with the release of iOS 8, Apple introduced HomeKit, a framework to integrate home automation gizmos under one roof. Back then (and still very much today), when you bought a gadget to control your lights, you had to use a gadget specific app. Buy another thermostat doohickey, get another app. HomeKit promised to unify all that under one roof, but because of long hardware cycles and stubborn manufacturers it has taken time to gain real traction. HomeKit didn’t come with a consumer app, although it did allow some plucky, independent developers to build such a thing. (Results ranged from “not bad” to “OMG, my eyes!”) With iOS 10, Apple finally introduced their own “Home” app to provide that universal control panel for every device in your home. Finally, with a first party app and three releases of HomeKit improvements, things are finally starting to come together. But it could be so much better.
In the Home app now, you can create automation rules, however they’re not quite smart enough to be useful. For example, you can set the Home app to turn on the lights at sundown, but in my house you need lights 45 minutes before sundown. To become really useful, we need modifiers on sunrise/sunset.
Rules can be tagged to only happen after sunset. For instance, if a motion detector downstairs fires, turn on the downstairs lamp. Sounds okay on paper, but between 6 pm and 11 pm, the downstairs lights are already on. What I really need is for a rule to only be active between 11 pm and 7 am, when I go downstairs in the middle of the night. That’s when I need the smart house to light my way. Perhaps an even better option is a scene based conditional — use this rule only when the BedTime scene is set.
And for these motion sensitive events, I usually want to follow that up with “turn the light off” if there’s no motion for five minutes. I don’t have any motion sensors yet (only a few available at the moment), but my research indicates that the “light off” companion event isn’t available yet.
Interactions Beyond Devices
With each version of iOS, HomeKit supports more types of devices — ceiling fans, window shades, humidifiers, door locks, cameras and so on. We now have the ability to build fairly complex scenes. At bedtime, one request to Siri can turn off the lights, turn down the thermostat, lock the doors, close the garage, draw the blinds and enable the security system. (Dads across the world will be in search of new hobbies.) With iOS 11, HomeKit needs to come out of it’s shell and start interacting outside its comfort zone.
What if HomeKit could interact with apps on your phone? On your TV? I like to sleep with the sound of crashing waves in the background (mostly to drown out the loud gulping of a bunny rabbit who needs a drink of water at 2 am). A couple of years ago, I switched from a dedicated sound machine (R.I.P. Squeezebox) to an app. When I tell Siri “BedTime” to shut down the house for the night, she should fire o do it manually. Likewise, when I hit the “Movie Mode” scene that sets the lights just right, why doesn’t the AppleTV automatically fire up and switch to Netflix? I’d be full prepped for Gilmore binging in one tap. (Seriously, what will Rory do?)
One way this could come to pass is via Workflow. Apple recently acquired the iOS automation app and everyone is anxiously waiting to see what Workflow can do now that they’re behind the curtain. The ability for HomeKit to activate a Workflow “workflow” would open the door to a cornucopia of possibilities. How about a ”yoga” scene that dims the lights, brings up the practice video on the TV, plays some new age tunes on the stereo and starts a workout session on your watch. That’s Apple’s big pitch anyway — the magic of a comprehensive and integration ecosystem.
Implied in that last bit is that HomeKit acquires the ability to interact across your devices. If this arrives, it’ll come wrapped up with Siri being able to do the same. This is an absolute must for the fabled Siri Speaker. Google Home’s killer feature is the ability to show information and entertainment on your TV via Chromecast. The Siri Speaker will need to do at least that, letting you use voice to play content on your AppleTV (or start a phone call on your iPhone, etc). Hopefully HomeKit can ride Siri’s coattails and automations can control not only “smart devices” like lights and switches, but iOS devices and Macs too. Picture walking into your office and a motion sensor triggers the “Work” scene. Lights turn on, the Mac wakes up, unlocks via your watch and fires up the morning workflow.
There’s so much more that I want to see from DubDub next week. These wishes for HomeKit are just a deep dive into one narrow area. The keynote is three days away and the rumors are few and far between. Apple has dropped a couple of press releases about material that would normally take up the first quarter of the keynote. We’re basically going in blind to two hours of complete surprise. And. I. Can. Not. Wait.
Waiting is the hardest part…