Adventures in setting up Homebridge for HomeKit

A recent project of mine has been to get Homebridge up and running. It’s a server-based program that acts as a bridge between smart devices in the home, and Apple’s Home app on iOS.

One thing, I don’t know why

HomeKit, the technology underpinning Home, is famously limited; whilst most smart devices support Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant, very few support HomeKit. Indeed, out of the various smart speakers, plug sockets, dishwasher, thermostat, smoke alarm and TV that we have in our house, it’s only the TV that natively supports HomeKit.

Whilst just about everything else (except the smoke alarm) supports Google Assistant, and the Google Home app, it would be helpful to be able to use these devices with Siri. For example, when I’m driving, I want to be able to use the Hey Siri command to turn the heating on, so that we don’t come home to a cold house.

I tried so hard, and got so far

There’s a few ways to run Homebridge. If you have money to spare, then by far the easiest way is to buy a HOOBS box. HOOBS stands for ‘Homebridge Out of Box System‘, and you’ll get a plug-in device with a customised version of Homebridge that is simple to set up. You can also buy HOOBS on an SD card, that can be slotted into your own Raspberry Pi. Or, you can just download the HOOBS SD card image for a donation of £10.

I have two Raspberry Pis – a RPi 400 which is our seven-year-old’s computer, and a RPi 4 which is my Plex server. The latter runs Plex under Ubuntu Core, a minimal version of Ubuntu Linux which doesn’t include a graphical user interface, or even the Aptitude package manager. Instead, apps can be installed using Snap packages, which enforces greater sandboxing and security. There is a Snap package for Homebridge, but I couldn’t actually get it to work; once installed, I couldn’t open the browser page as instructed.

So, I’ve installed it using Apt on our child’s Raspberry Pi 400, and followed the proper instructions.

There’s only one thing you should know

When you first start Homebridge, it won’t do much initially. To get it talking to your devices, you’ll need to install the appropriate plugins, which you can do through the web UI. I suggest going with the plugins that have been ‘verified’ first, as you’ll probably find that there’s more than one plugin for some of the more popular services like Nest. Whilst installing plugins is relatively easy, configuring them can be difficult:

  • The Nest plugin, for example, has you logging into your Google Nest account in Chrome’s Incognito mode, whilst having Developer Tools open. You then have to copy and paste various data from the HTTP headers.
  • I have a series of smart plug sockets which use the Tuya Smart Life platform, but I had them registered under a different app which Homebridge can’t connect to. I had to de-register them and then set them up again on the official Tuya app.
  • Despite following the instructions, I couldn’t get my Bosch smart dishwasher to connect

Setting up Homebridge is therefore something best reserved for people who are comfortable using the Linux command line and with at least an intermediate understanding of how devices work. However, it does mean that I now have these devices in HomeKit as planned.

Homebridge even supports my Solar Inverter, although in a rather odd way. It appears as 12(!) separate accessories in the Home app, seeing as HomeKit doesn’t ‘know’ what a solar panel is. You can also make the Google Home app talk to Homebridge – again, this is the only way that I can make my Solax system work with Google.

But in the end, it doesn’t even Matter

Those of you who follow news in the smart devices/Internet of Things space will be aware of Matter, a new unified smart device standard with the support of Amazon, Apple, Google and Samsung. Matter will hopefully do away with the separate ecosystems that each company offers, and any Matter approved device should work with any other. However, the final Matter specification was only agreed last year, and I’m not expecting many of my existing devices to be updated to support it. At best, my Google Nest Mini devices will be updated soon, and my thermostat may be updated. For others, I would probably have to replace them with Matter-enabled devices in due course. Therefore, Homebridge offers me the flexibility that Matter will hopefully bring as an interim solution.

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