Here’s How I Finally Accepted HomeKit is a Raging S*#t Storm

4 minute read
| Editorial

When Apple first announced HomeKit in 2014 I hoped it would be the unifying platform that let me truly control all my smart home devices as if they all came from the same company. That turned out to be true, but in the end it doesn’t really matter because HomeKit has become a raging s*#t storm, and I finally have to accept that.

HomeKit is Apple’s smart home device and home automation platform. Any company can make devices that support the standard, and they all work together like one big, happy, family. At first, Apple relied on developers to make their own apps for controlling everything, but later released its own Home app, which now is required to manage some tasks, including accessing HomePod settings.

Apple HomePod and Amazon Echo

Amazon’s Alexa beat out Apple’s HomeKit as my smart home controller

I love that HomeKit lets me control my smart home devices regardless if I’m home, or practically anywhere else in the world. I also love that it reliably manages my ecobee smart thermostat schedule when ecobee‘s own app failed.

There’s a lot to like about HomeKit. So much so that most of my smart home voice controlled actions start with “Hey, Siri.” When the HomePod came out I made a point to transition as much as I possibly could from Alexa voice control over to HomeKit and Siri. And yet, I’m ready to kick HomeKit to the curb and give Alexa a big apology for straying.

How HomeKit Broke My Digital Heart

My big problem with HomeKit isn’t overall reliability. Apple has most of those issues under control, although I sometimes have problems where only part of a scene executes. We’ve moved beyond the days where I had to routinely log out of iCloud on my Apple TV and log back in again to keep remote access working. My problem is that the HomeKit platform is so fragile that when something goes wrong there isn’t a graceful way to recover. In fact, there isn’t any way to recover.

HomeKit is like an incandescent light bulb: It works as long as it does. When it doesn’t, you throw it out and start over with a new bulb. HomeKit is essentially the incandescent filament in the home automation light bulb.

My figurative filament broke when iCloud decided I was syncing HomeKit data and couldn’t get out of that loop. I knew I was in trouble when I launched Apple’s Home app on my iPhone and was stuck with a screen that perpetually said “Loading Accessories and Scenes,” and then saw the same screen on my iPad.

After about 30 minutes a new link showed up at bottom of the screen saying “Reset Home Configuration.” That translates to “wipe out all of your HomeKit data, including devices and scenes.” In other words, it’s the nuclear option.

That seemed a bit radical for being stuck in a sync loop, so it was time to do some troubleshooting. Relaunching the Home app and restarting my iPhone didn’t fix the problem.

Logging every iOS device out of iCloud and logging back in from one—a commonly suggested troubleshooting step for this problem—didn’t work. Nor did creating a new Apple ID, logging in with that, and then logging in with your original Apple ID (Seriously, that’s one of Apple’s suggestions).

In the end, I had a pile of three iPads, an iPod Touch, and an iPhone all logged out of my iCloud account. Also, I logged out from my Apple TV, and did a factory reset on my HomePod since I couldn’t get past the “Loading Accessories and Scenes” screen in the Home app to log out my fancy new speaker from there. Still no dice.

Bonus: logging out of your iCloud account removes your credit cards from Apple Pay. So that’s another thing to set up again.

Finally I accepted where this was heading and reset my HomeKit network, wiping out 23 scenes, seven automations, nine smart bulbs, five smart switches, six sensors, and probably a couple other devices I’m forgetting. And just like that, I was able to start setting up my devices in HomeKit again.

HomeKit’s Achilles Heel

After four years, the answer to HomeKit problems shouldn’t be “wipe it out and start over.” That feels a lot like Microsoft telling Windows users to reformat their hard drive and reinstall the operating system when something goes wrong. It also feels very un-Apple-like.

Instead of jumping right to the nuke-it-from-orbit option when something goes wrong, HomeKit needs a more graceful solution. I’d be happy with a dialog telling me there’s a problem syncing and would I like to roll back to the latest HomeKit settings backup. I may lose a recently added device or scene, but that’s an order of magnitude better than wiping out everything and starting from scratch.

Reset HomeKit option in Home app on iPhone

A stuck sync loop (left) shouldn’t have a destructive solution (right)

People look to their smart home platform to reliably automate actions and manage their devices. If Apple can’t do that—and right now it really can’t—maybe HomeKit should have a big BETA stamp on it, along with a warning that you shouldn’t use it in situations where reliability is important. Imagine coming home to find you’re locked out of your house because the HomeKit smart lock can’t be reached without starting over with your home automation setup.

It’s Not Me, HomeKit, it’s You

I learned my lesson. Except for a couple actions that rely on HomeKit-only devices, all of my smart home automation is going back to Alexa. That’s not a perfect solution because Alexa refuses to let me include the ecobee in Routines, and saying things like, “Alexa, turn on the living room lights” often gets me an “OK” response without the lights actually turning on.

Still, that’s better than a platform that seamlessly links all of my devices together and then takes a dirt nap it can’t recover from. It’s frustrating when I look at everything HomeKit is capable of and have to instead use a platform that’s more limited, but doesn’t break.

I’m not saying Amazon’s Alexa is better than HomeKit. Every home automation platform has its flaws and limitations. The real problem is that HomeKit is so fragile that I simply can’t trust it any more.

Frankly, I don’t feel comfortable recommending any consumer-level smart home platform to the average user. Flipping a light switch is still far more reliable, even if it means setting down the groceries or walking into a dark room. Maybe some day that’ll change, and maybe some day Apple can prove to me HomeKit is robust enough to be my smart home platform—but not today.

17 Comments Add a comment

  1. geoduck

    I was chuckling at this, when I came to the last paragraph:

    Frankly, I don’t feel comfortable recommending any consumer-level smart home platform to the average user. Flipping a light switch is still far more reliable, even if it means setting down the groceries or walking into a dark room. Maybe some day that’ll change, and maybe some day Apple can prove to me HomeKit is robust enough to be my smart home platform—but not today.

    THIS! This is what I’ve been saying. The idea of home automation is interesting but all of these home automation schemes strike me as still far more trouble than they are worth. I have never had a light fail to come on when I flip a switch (all of my fixtures have multiple bulbs. Lose one and it still lights). My automatic thermostat was programmed several years ago and has never failed. (Once a year I replace the battery but even then it remembers my programming). My motion-sensor lights over the driveway just work. My back door lock just works. My ceiling fan just works. My window blinds just work.
    Home automation is a great concept, but it’s still a solution searching for a problem.

    • geoduck

      BTW I want to add that this is why I come to TMO. When Apple does well you say so, but you aren’t a fan site. When Apple screws up, puts out something they should be embarrassed about, or otherwise blows it, TMO isn’t afraid to to point it out. Articles like this, add to the credibility to your reporting.

  2. John Kheit

    The real problem is iCloud is a steaming pile. It regularly clobbers people’s contacts that won’t sync. And seems like HomeKit is built upon that sad sack.

    • geoduck

      I’ve had no trouble with iCloud. I use it to store documents so I can access them from all my devices, move pictures around, share pictures, as well as things like contacts and passwords. It’s been rock solid for me. Admittedly a sample size of one is not definitive so YMMV.

      • John Kheit

        Sadly it does and I know more than a few people that have huge problems with contacts not syncing. There are probably hundreds of threads on it in the apple support forums. The solution is nuclear there too. Back up some subset of your contacts. Nuke ALL contacts on all iDevices, nuke them up on iCloud, repopulate one device and pray it propagates without corruption and things work out. “It just works” not. It works so well that this article was necessary:

        https://www.macobserver.com/tips/how-to/fix-icloud-contacts/

      • geoduck

        John I wonder if the problem with contact syncing might be a complexity issue. I’ve had no problem between my iPhone, iPad and Mac, and my contacts don’t change much. But if it’s a family with 3-5 phones, an equal number of tablets, several Macs, plus ATV, plus who knows what else, adding, removing, or editing contacts several times a day by anyone in the group, that would be a harder problem. If it takes, for example an hour for iCloud to push any changes to all the devices and in the meantime more changes are made, you have a recipe for a corrupted database. This would still be Apple’s issue, they would need to improve the system so it could handle simultaneous edits and updates. They would need to make the system both faster and more robust. But it might help to explain why some are having problems with iCloud and some aren’t.

    • webjprgm

      More iCloud failures:

      I have occasional problems with iCloud’s Two-factor Authentication. Just this last weekend I was trying to share my calendar with my wife and it sent an email to her which I tapped for her on her phone, then that wanted a login, so I let her log in to her iCloud account in Safari on the phone, then her phone popped up a 2FA dialog with a code to enter on the device that was trying to log in. Oh good job genius, its the very device the dialog itself is on, but the dialog blocks the screen in Safari where the code can be entered and closing the dialog causes Safari to show a screen that 2FA failed. Fortunately the problem was easily solved by using her iMac to accept the shared calendar, but that seems like a pretty stupid failure on iCloud’s part.

      (I also frequently get iCloud sign-in alerts on my phone when the 5 year old AppleTV sneezes. Saying allow or don’t allow seems to make no difference. I’m not sure that older AppleTV can even deal with 2FA. Nor do I know why it keeps giving me this notification. I’m guessing it is when it installs an update or something. I know it does when I restart the AppleTV.)

  3. pjs_boston

    Jeff, just out of curiosity, did you contact Apple Support for assistance before wiping your HomeKit setup? If so, how did that go?

    • Jeff Gamet

      After seeing report after report where people said Apple’s standard response was to create a new Apple ID, and then to just reset HomeKit, I decided to skip the Apple Support path.

  4. Doug Petrosky

    Anecdotal rubbish!

    I’m sure this happened to you and i’m sure it is frustrating but I also know you run a crap load of BETA software and you should know what to expect when running beta software. Now you are going to TRASH the only home control system that protects your privacy because of a bug that likely was never released to production code, and you never even contacting Apple to trouble shoot?

    I get trying not to be a fanboy, but you should give this a fair chance. Set it back up, kill the beta stuff and see how things go. Maybe Apple just can’t handle the load and most people don’t have issues because they don’t push things? But maybe you are your own worst enemy and maybe HomeKit is now a mission critical system that you should not run beta on?

    This does not excuse Apple for what ever bug was probably in that Beta software and how they ungracefully they handled it but thanks to you they don’t even know what happened and can’t even try to fix the root cause.

    Go ahead, and share with dozens of companies, IFTTT, Stringify, Amazon, Google and anyone else the comings and goings of you at your house. I’ll keep it local and controlled with HomeKit.

  5. waxlaboratory

    I agree with Jeff and I also agree with Doug. Betas tend to cause all kinds of problems with HomeKit. The problem is HomeKit is very fragmented; beta or not. When there is a problem it is a huge mess.

  6. torg

    Thank you Jeff for writing this. I have had a HomeKit set up for almost 2 years now with about 18 Smart bulbs, five smart plugs, a garage door opener, and an ecobee thermostat. The first year felt like perfection. This last Christmas, I ran into the exact same problem. Let’s just call it the HomeKit white screen of death. To make it worse, it happened while I was away from my home for the holiday. When I got home, I’d begrudgingly chose the nuclear option and begin to “rebuild“my smart home. That worked for about a month, when it happened again. This time I chose the Apple Support route. I was rather disappointed with the experience as they just made sure that I had two factor authentication turned on and verified some other iCloud related settings (all of which were correct) and said sorry, looks like it’s the nuclear option for you. I still haven’t gotten around to rebuilding the HomeKit set up.

    I would classify myself as a savvy end user, And have no coding experience. But I do agree with you that the home app does feel half baked at times. If Apple was able to build IFTTT (as well make Else an option) into their old Automator app, I find it a little frustrating that they couldn’t do it with the Home app.
    It seems to me, that the problem with HomeKit is not iCloud but rather the iPhone itself. Since beginning this journey, I have been frustrated with the lack of a true home hub piece of hardware . The way it feels to me, is that the iPhone acts as the hub rather than what it should be, a remote. And the AppleTV, while touted as a Home hub is more or less just a gateway from the outside. I don’t know if I am at the point you are ready to give up on HomeKit altogether, but I truly appreciate your writing this article and I feel for you brother!

  7. ecobeeMike

    Hey there!
    I’m with ecobee here. I’m sorry to hear about your Homekit and Alexa routines issue with your ecobee. We don’t currently have Alexa Routines available with our ecobee, but once it’s opened up to us from Amazon, we can look into adding it with our ecobee. But I can help with any Homekit related issues you’re experiencing with your ecobee. Feel free to send me a direct email at mike.a@ecobee.com. If it’s disconnecting often, or not responding, I can help look into this issue! Looking forward to hearing from you!

    Mike@ecobee

  8. Brian C. Bock

    While I don’t agree that HomeKit is all that bad, I recognize that I could some day have the problem you are experiencing unless Apple improves their software. I totally agree that they should version their settings file/database so that you can roll back to a known good setup should something get mucked up. I have had a lot of issues with Apple software in general including Mac OS’s inability to consistently see its TimeMachine backup and absolutely dreadful palm rejection on their trackpad. But HomeKit has been a delight to me, so far. So I think it’s clickbait to call it a “raging s***-storm”. But in fairness, Apple should and can do better than what it is doing.

    Now I did mitigate possible issues by adopting a cardinal rule that I think helps with HomeKit, Alexa, Google Home, or whatever: All important devices must operate manually. I use Lutron Caseta for all of my primary lighting for ceiling lights and primary lamps. So each device has a physical switch. Some have a few, like the bedroom lamp which is controllable from the door and from the bed with the use of Pico Remotes. These lights work like a normal light if wifi is down or the hub is removed. The Ecobee 3 can be controlled even when their service goes out. The only exception to my rule is accent or mood lighting with colored lamps. I use bulbs connected via Wifi. But I don’t consider them “mission critical”. I would NEVER use WiFi light switches or bulbs for primary lighting as they are too prone to issues, no matter what ecosystem you are in.

  9. Robert Lucas

    I had exactly the same problem last week—HomeKit app stuck on loading scenes and accessories on all of my devices. However, in my case there was a happy ending. I called Apple support and got a very dedicated technician. He gave me his direct number, work hours, holidays, went off to research the problem and called back several times. Unfortunately, nothing he came up with solved the problem and it was looking like a reset was the only remaining option. I resisted because I have so many accessories, scenes, and automations. So he wrote up the case, asked me for some screenshots (and I included some console logs of the failed boot sequence), and promised to escalate the case to engineering. The following day, I absentmindedly asked Siri to turn on some lights and they came on! I grabbed my phone and sure enough the Home app launched properly and everything was back to normal. My wife later called the support contact at Apple to tell him everything was back to normal, and he said they hadn’t done anything! I’m not sure what to make of this: perhaps a server went AWOL (it was Easter weekend) and was not noticed/repaired until Monday. In any case, I agree that Apple needs to give us some back-up and restore options for HomeKit data. But, other than this, HomeKit has worked very well for me for years.

  10. JC Smith

    This article is right and so are the comments that say this is a huge problem! I’m an Apple fan but this is the worst Apple screw up in the 30 years I’ve owned apple products and software both personally and with my business.
    I happened to me a few times now most recently last week, one HomeKit set up disappeared for a remote home that I just left and won’t be back for six months. That won’t fly to try to set it up remotely so I’m screwed. Dealt with Apple support for a week, as I had a prior occasion when another location disappeared without warning. Apple can’t seem to fix this! But the worst is that there is no backup means, to roll back and get my 50:plus devices back. I’m outraged as it says it syncs to the cloud, but no configuration file or database is available to use. I’ve Already done a redo setup two prior times and it’s a huge amount of work, and few have time for the redo all manual approach. Apple listen up, your HomeKit has a big problem!

    • Jeff Gamet

      Is there any chance you have an iOS 9 device controlling HomeKit along with your iOS 10 and 11 devices? I’ve heard—but it isn’t confirmed—that the iOS 9 device can potentially screw up your HomeKit configuration.

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