As we reach the 11th hour for WWDC speculation comes hints Apple may at last make smarthomes — and by extension, smart offices, warehouses or anything else with smart devices — better with a homeOS to bring the disparate strands of its current strategy together.
‘iOS, watchOS, tvOS and homeOS’
This is what was suggested in a recruitment ad posted to the company’s website, which mentioned a homeOS system for the first time (before the ad was revised to drop the reference).
“Are you passionate about Music? The Apple Music team is looking for stellar software engineers to create awesome listening experiences for our over 1 billion active users. Our team enjoys a tremendous impact — we are one of the first applications on every new Apple platform, and our app is often featured in Keynotes and in marketing materials. The experiences you enable are sure to be tweeted and blogged about all over the internet. You’ll get to work with system engineers across Apple, learning the inner-workings of iOS, watchOS, tvOS and homeOS, and optimizing your code for performance in ways only Apple can. Come join our team and make a real difference for music lovers worldwide.”
The homeOS reference was changed to HomePod after the ad drew attention from Apple watchers online. But its initial inclusion opened the door for speculation about what the company might have in mind for next week’s event.
Why does Apple need a homeOS?
Apple’s existing approach to the smart home has evolved over time and now seems a little ad hoc. It consists of multiple complementary solutions Apple attempts to combine within the somewhat opaque Home app.
The strategy relies on services like Apple Music, products such as Apple TV or HomePod, third-party smart devices and technologies, such as UWB or the recently christened Matter interconnect standard, to sew all the strands together.
The overall effect is smart, but not super smart.
What Apple has found is that these disparate devices also present disparate user experiences. So while it is becoming easier to put smart devices in your home, the home hasn’t yet become especially smart.
While Made for HomeKit devices integrate with existing systems OK, not every smart device does the same — and while Matter will make this a little simpler, it’s still a little chaotic. Apple’s Home app is getting a little smarter and can automate some tasks, such as controlling the lights at certain times of day. But we’re still in a space somewhere between The Flintstones and The Jetsons.
But the idea of a home (or office) smart enough to understand and predict your needs hasn’t grown into an off-the-shelf mass market reality at this time. That, I think, is an environment homeOS aims to improve.
Where there’s tech, there’s data
The reason the home needs an OS of its own is in the data.
I see it this way: When systems in your home (or factory, warehouse, or office) are equipped with sensors and some degree of built-in machine intelligence, they begin to generate data. That data should yield actionable insights and enable your home-as-a-computer to begin to transact tasks on your behalf.
This doesn’t happen under HomeKit.
The data is siloed and isn’t analyzed to any great extent, which means it’s a wasted opportunity. Of course, Apple’s commitment to user privacy is part of what has inhibited this. But with machine learning now available to every Apple chip, on-device (or at home) data analytics for smarter living and working is, I guess, a reality waiting to happen.
One can’t help but wonder whether Apple would now consider providing Apple Silicon processors to third-party accessory developers in the smart home space?
How might we use such systems?
Think about energy consumption: Imagine if all the devices at home or in the office tracked their activity and shared information concerning energy use. In theory it becomes much easier to manage energy use, identify peaks, and work to minimize future use.
We know Apple worries about these things — its environmental reports note the environmental cost of using its devices and it is committed to reducing this.
The company admits that while product manufacturing accounts for 71%, product usage accounts for 19% of its current carbon footprint. Even a 10% reduction in the latter would help the company meet its environmental targets, and smart energy-consumption monitoring could help identify where electricity is wasted.
This would certainly make for much deeper, much more useful information than the simple dumb tariff data you get on so-called “smart meters.”
Of course, the capacity to automate a space, explore communication between devices (Intercom), and to combine data captured across multiple smart devices may be part of what seems to be Apple’s strategic approach here.
We can’t be certain how Apple intends to bring this “homeOS” to market.
The fact it was subsequently removed from the ad makes it a moot point. Though it seems to me that following this path would help an Apple smarthome become an evolving animal capable of meeting future need. Smart homes should be smart, and there should be an OS for that…
It may never happen at all – it’s only a recruitment ad, after all, and the homeOS reference was removed pretty swiftly once it was spotted. But I remain curious to see whether any eventual implementation (if any) comes across as a hybrid of its Shortcuts automation app and HomeKit with a dose of Siri, or if Apple has a more nuanced vision.
In addition to this, it’s important to note that if Apple turns the home into an operating system it suggests the company would also seek to enable developers to build applications and services to run on that OS.
It is possible that Apple’s plan is less evolved than that (if, indeed, it exists at all), but the timing of this particular leak raises more questions about what the company intends on sharing at WWDC 2021.
Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.