By Dan Moren
June 7, 2017 11:33 AM PT
HomePod’s promise is as a platform, not just a device
I may have a bit of a smart speaker problem.
My kitchen has an Amazon Echo, my office an Echo Dot and a Google Home. A new Echo Show is due to join them in a few weeks. As someone who’s hip-deep in the Apple ecosystem, that might make the newly announced HomePod seem like a no-brainer, but I’ve found myself hesitant since the device’s introduction earlier this week.
Let’s caveat this whole shebang by reminding all of us—myself included—that it is super early in the process here. The device shown off at WWDC is, by all indications, far from complete. Nobody got to so much as touch one, and the most that folks seemed to get was a sound comparison test. A lot can change in the six months before this product ships, and we’re likely to hear way more about it in September.
But, all of that aside, what keeps me from giving my wholehearted support to the HomePod is the product messaging. It seems clear to me that this device was designed with music first. That makes sense: Apple’s relationship with music is well documented, and they’ve been down this road before with the late iPod Hi-Fi. As Phil Schiller mentioned during the live episode of John Gruber’s The Talk Show this week, what’s changed is that the company now has an incredibly deep bench of audio engineering talent that it didn’t have a decade ago. (Not least of all because it spent a few billion dollars on a little company that makes audio equipment.)
I have faith that the sound will be great. It may very well compare favorably with my Sonos Play:1’s, if early reports are any indication. It will certainly provide better sound than any of those other smart speakers. 1
But here’s the thing: it’s not the speaker part of the HomePod I’m hung up on—it’s the smart part.
Because the HomePod seems to be all about music, with the rest of those smart features positioned more as afterthoughts. While music is certainly an important part of my everyday life, I’ve grown attached to the smart capabilities of those other devices.
Siri’s good enough at some of the things that I use those smart speakers for—setting timers, getting weather forecasts, and (mostly) playing music—but going beyond those core competencies falls apart fast. It still doesn’t respond well to a lot of general queries (to be fair, neither does the Echo; the Google Home is the clear winner there—no surprise as it’s backed by the Google search engine). In my house, Siri is third-in-line for any voice-based query that doesn’t directly relate to Apple devices.
Siri may very well be sufficient for what you want to do with the HomePod, but after six years, I’ve found myself concerned about the seemingly slow pace of development. I’d hoped for major improvements to the voice assistant during this week’s keynote, and instead got an improved voice and some meager additions to SiriKit.
And with Siri as the brains and, more or less, as the OS for the HomePod, it doesn’t instill a lot of confidence. As it stands right now, the HomePod is more of an accessory than a platform. And a platform is what I want out of the device. Third-party developers should be able to extend the capabilities, as Amazon has done with the Echo, whether through an expansion of SiriKit or a full-fledged SDK. I think this is a big area of computing going forward, and I want to see Apple commit to it.
I believe that’s possible, too. One thing jumped out at me during Apple’s presentation: the HomePod is powered by an A8 chip, the same processor which powered the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus and is still found in the fourth-generation Apple TV. That’s a lot of power for a speaker, and while I’m sure the audio enhancements that Apple is doing in the HomePod requires some power, I’d be surprised if it couldn’t be harnessed to other ends.
In the end, it’s that promise that gets my attention with the HomePod and sways me back towards the idea that I might actually buy one—the promise of future potential.
Not to mention feeding my smart speaker addiction. (Come on, like I’m not going to write about an Apple smart speaker? Really?)
Full disclosure: I’m not even remotely an audiophile. I listen to music on my Echo all the time, like an animal. ↩
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