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It’s time for new hardware at the center of Apple’s home strategy

Tech companies are still investing huge amounts of time and energy in smart-home products, as the recent Consumer Electronics Show displayed. A year ago, Apple hired a new head of home products—but it hasn’t yet resulted in a lot of visible changes to Apple’s strategy.

The biggest move so far is Apple’s joining forces with its competitors to form an alliance to encourage smart-home interoperability. That’s a good start, and I’m hopeful that Apple can begin to push HomeKit forward in 2020.

Last year, I suggested that Apple make a new version of the Apple TV and HomePod that works as a TV soundbar. I’d still like to see that product. But now, for 2020, here’s another hardware suggestion: Apple can contribute to the smart-home industry and its own bottom line by doing what it does best, namely creating a new product that’s a fusion of hardware, software, and cloud services. It’s time for Apple to build a product that makes your home smarter and more secure. It’s time for Apple Home.

The needs of the home

Apple got out of the home router game a while ago, with the discontinuation of the AirPort line. I’m recommending that Apple bring it back, because today’s smart homes require rock-solid wireless connectivity, and while Apple’s two biggest competitors have home-network offerings, Apple’s got nothing. An Apple-built mesh networking system a la Amazon’s Eero seems like a natural.

airport extreme Apple

Apple AirPort Extreme

Apple also needs to consider the security and privacy of its customers. It has spent time updating its software, most notably Safari, to discourage the profiling and tracking of its users, but some of the most valuable personal information leaks out in every Internet connection through the IP address, which can act as a unique identifier and provide geolocation. Internet service providers can also snoop on the traffic being sent over their networks, and even collect and sell that data. But this can all be thwarted with the judicious application of a VPN, or Virtual Private Network.

Now consider the security of some smart-home devices like home security cameras. Apple began to address this with the introduction of HomeKit Secure Video, a feature of iCloud that stores audio and video from home video cameras encrypted in iCloud, rather than being stored on some random camera vendor’s website. It’s a good start, but it does require streaming video across your home internet connection. What if that video could be saved locally on an encrypted device?

Finally, consider how much more intelligent a “smart home” could become if there’s a device at the center of it, orchestrating different devices through automation rules both simple and complex? Currently Apple has implemented an initial version of this concept that runs on the Apple TV or an iPad (so long as it stays in the house). Imagine a more powerful device that was always attached to your devices and could make them work in concert.

Are you getting it yet? These aren’t different products. It’s a single hardware product, the Apple Home.

A single puck to rule it all

What I’m envisioning is a device shaped very much like the Apple TV, which you plug in to your cable modem or equivalent router. It would take over the administration of your home network, and you could add additional devices to spread its Wi-Fi signal across your house. (Apple could sell additional Apple Home pucks, wireless Apple Home repeaters that plug into wall jacks, and could even integrate this functionality in a future update to the Apple TV.)

apple tv 2015 Apple

Apple TV

But this device isn’t just a replacement for the AirPort base station. It’s running Apple’s HomeKit server, so it can serve as the hub for home automations. Perhaps it could even be outfitted with a few different radios, so it would be able to act as a bridge to control other smart home devices that currently require separate hubs, like the Lutron Caseta and Philips Hue bridges I currently have in my house.

Adding optional storage for a local HomeKit Secure Video archive seems like a no-brainer—and would allow Apple to charge extra for larger storage options. I’d also suggest Apple take a page out of its old Time Machine product and offer the ability to add more storage and work as a backup server. (Even better, allow that local backup to sync itself with iCloud, which in turn will promote the purchase of more iCloud storage space.)

Apple’s always looking for new services to add to its portfolio, and given the company’s security and privacy focus, why not offer an automatic VPN service? Not only could it release a software update to allow iPad, iPhone, and Mac users to automatically connect when they’re away from home, but the Apple Home itself would encrypt all the data flowing into and out of the house, keeping it cloaked from any attempt to analyze the traffic or use the IP address to track users. Apple gets to protect its customers and charge them a monthly fee for the privilege.

Apple at the center

No, Apple doesn’t need to build a security camera, or smart lock, or video doorbell, or thermostat. Those ancillary products are exactly the sort of thing that third-party hardware companies are great at. What Apple provides is intelligence at the very center of the experience—and that means the home and the home network.

The elimination of AirPort wasn’t a mistake. The reall mistake was not replacing it with a next-generation product that could be the hub of a home network, a secure bridge to the rest of the internet, a device that connects a constellation of smart-home devices together and makes it all work together and make sense. It’s time for Apple to return to the center of our homes.

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