Will Apple's Internet of Things vision hurt a beautiful idea?

With HomeKit, Apple promises easy home automation

Ah, the connected world. You wake up in the morning, and give iPhone's Siri a pleasant command: "Good morning." In response, lights turn on, music starts playing and the coffee maker begins brewing just as your day begins.

Apple's just announced approach to home automation and the Internet of Things is via its new Homekit, a framework and network protocol for controlling devices in the home. It promises a seamless user interface for organizing and controlling connected devices.

Homekit is part of iOS 8, which Apple unveiled at WWDC on Monday.

To work in this connected-home environment, product manufacturers will need Apple's MFi certification (Made for iPod, Made for iPhone, Made for iPad). But the connected world will never belong exclusively to Apple; it's just too big. So how will Android, Windows and other devices operate in this Apple universe? Will they be able to all work together? Or will the grand idea of a seamlessly connected Internet of Things environment slip away?

One answer comes from Marvell, which makes a system on a chip (SoC) that may be used in many of the products that make up Apple's Internet of Things universe.

Marvell recently announced a low-power WiFi, ZigBee and Bluetooth microcontroller SoC. It combines what had been separate components into a fully integrated unit, said Philip Poulidis, vice president and general manager of Marvell's mobile and Internet of Things business units. It is low power, has the capability for long battery life and is small enough for wearables.

The Marvell SoC will be used by manufacturers to create connected products, and Marvell has decided to back Apple's HomeKit by shipping its SoC with Apple's protocols built-in -- including secure pairing. That should help ease MFi certification for product makers, said Poulidis.

"We felt that Apple really has a knack for building things that are very user friendly," said Poulidis.

But Marvell's SoC is agnostic. It supports multiple protocol stacks and different methods for dealing with security, discovery and control across multiple operating systems. There's a reason for that.

"All of our customers are designing for both Android and iOS," said Poulidis. As a result, the SoC will simultaneously support multiple operating systems.

Support for multiple operating systems on the SoC means that a manufacturer who makes coffeemakers, for instance, won't have to stock shelves with multiple coffeemakers: one that supports Apple, another for Android, and so on.

The complications may arise in the level of control a user has over a device. If you are using Apple to connect, will there be features that aren't accessible to Android users or vice versa?

Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group, noted that the iPhone initially worked best with cars while other phones had reduced capabilities. "But eventually Android worked just as well, because it was in the car makers' best interest to embrace both platforms."

In home automation, "the iPhone may initially have a slight advantage over other platforms, but eventually that advantage will spread to other phones, and at the very least you will get parity," said Enderle.

One problem Android faces is the forking of that OS, particularly in Asia. One approach that might work, said Enderle would be the adoption of the open-source stack championed by the Linux Foundation: the AllJoyn Framework. AllJoyn was originally developed by Qualcomm.

There are also ongoing efforts to build one interface for controlling all home device across multiple platforms. A new one is Oort, which is building systems for connecting devices, based on the idea that Bluetooth Low Energy will prevail in home automation. Control across all these devices will be from a common user interface.

Oort sees Apple's entry in the Internet of Things as positive, because it will raise awareness and help educate the public about its value. But Adam Handzlik, Oort's CTO, worries about a fracturing, or an uneven experience across platforms that could unravel of the idea of a truly connected home.

"I'm afraid there will be some manufacturers, and maybe Apple [itself], that will decide to close access to some of the functions and, therefore, this beautiful idea may not come true," said Handzlik.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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