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Apple’s New Smart Home Platform Has One Big Flaw

6 minute read

Alert: A window just opened in your home. Maybe you’re sitting at your desk at work, and your kids have just gotten in from school. Perhaps you’re riding the subway, miles away from the studio apartment you rent alone. Or you could even be in bed, about to go to sleep for the night. It doesn’t matter where you are. All that matters is that a window just opened in your home — and I’ve just let you know.

This is what life is like in a smart home. Something happens, and you’re alerted to it. It could be your web security camera spotting some motion, your connected smoke alarm detecting some CO2, or in this case, your window sensor tripping. All these devices could should be able to send a notification to your smartphone letting you know what’s up. But with the beta version of Apple’s upcoming Home app, launching with iOS 10, the company has disabled alerts for many smart home devices. The result is a smart home solution that’s less smart, and potentially less safe.

According to 2015 research by iControl, 90% of consumers believe security is a top reason to purchase smart home systems. In that sense, I am like most people. But I’m also different in a major way: At one time or another, I’ve had almost every major smart home device installed in my home for my job. Personally, I’ve embraced Apple’s HomeKit platform to unify my various devices through one simple interface (though I have other systems like Wink and Samsung’s Smartthings in place for testing purposes). And the reason for my selection is one of security, not convenience. Thanks to its end-to-end encryption, HomeKit is the most secure smart home system available today.

I got serious about home security when, a couple months ago, my neighbor asked if I had seen anyone suspicious around his house. A birdbath had been tipped over in his backyard, and a nearby window had been left opened. No one broke in, but it spooked me regardless. I decided to equip my home with some HomeKit-compatible Elgato Eve window and door sensors. I already had some non-HomeKit gear on my entryways, alerting me on my iPhone or Apple Watch every time the door opened or closed. But I wanted the latest. Unfortunately, they weren’t also the greatest.

Installation was a breeze, a rarity in smart home tech. I could easily tell if my window was open through Apple’s Home app, currently in beta, and ElGato’s Eve app. Next, I tried to program the sensor to alert me when the window was opened. But to my amazement, that can’t be done. Apple, the company whose mobile devices alert us to everything from fitness goals to Instagram likes, has barred some HomeKit-compatible smart home gadgets from sending iPhone notifications.

There are good and bad reasons behind this. It’s possible, for instance, that Apple doesn’t want HomeKit users to be spammed with notifications. If so, that’s a fair point — imagine how annoying it would be if your phone buzzed every time your kids ran in and out the door, for instance. Still, it would be nice to at least have the option of setting our own notification preferences, as we can do on the iPhone itself.

Meanwhile, issue lies in part with HomeKit’s approach to security. Apple requires that all HomeKit gear send a special kind of notification that’s processed differently than the standard iPhone alerts for apps, emails, and texts. These new alerts originate with the HomeKit device before getting routed through the home’s Apple TV or iPad, one of which is required to use HomeKit. Next they’re sent through the web via Apple’s iCloud service, and finally they come back to the user’s iPhone. Along the way, the notification is encrypted (so no one on the web can intercept it) and decrypted (so the user can read it). It’s a smart system that’s more secure than anything else on the market, because no one, not even Apple, can read your notifications.

The downside, however, is that Apple gets to choose which gadgets can send notifications and which can’t. And right now, it’s not allowing every HomeKit-compatible smart home product to send notifications. The feature is currently restricted to accessories that allow access, like locks or security systems. This is great if you buy the HomeKit-compatible August Smart Lock, for instance, but not if you want to keep your regular deadbolt and slap a door sensor on your home’s entryway. Elgato’s door and window sensor are classified as contact sensors, and as a result aren’t allowed to send alerts.

The situation has led to some poor ratings for Elgato’s Eve products, which are getting three or fewer stars out of five on Amazon. The major complaint — a lack of alerts — is not something Elgato can fix. “The decision whether or not to enable HomeKit notifications is up to Apple,” says Adam Steinberg, Elgato’s vice president of marketing, “Very few HomeKit services support notifications, most notably locks and alarm systems.” The issue could prevent other, similar HomeKit products from reaching mainstream success. Apple declined to comment on the notification restrictions.

There is a workaround, though it’s comical. HomeKit lets users program some home automation commands, meaning when my sensor-equipped window opens, I can set my Phillips Hue lightbulbs to turn red, as if there are intruders aboard the Starship Enterprise. But that doesn’t accomplish much if I’m out of the home, not to mention it might unsettle guests. To be fair, I can see if my window is open or closed by opening Apple’s Home app and checking manually. But in a world where Apple and its rivals are racing to serve up proactive notifications and suggestions for everything from apps to music, that’s a big step backwards.

As of this writing, Apple’s new iPhone software is still in beta. Nothing about this is set in stone; the company could change its mind about notifications at any point. And despite this misstep, Apple still has the best smart home platform yet. But like many smart home owners, I’m tech savvy enough to manage my own notifications. All I’m asking for is a little more control — and a little more security.

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