iPhone, Apple TV, iPad, Apple Watch — all of them were super interesting new products that, inevitably, were followed up with even better second-generation versions. iPhone got 3G and GPS and went international. Apple TV switched to iOS and streaming. iPad got significantly lighter and faster. Apple Watch got brighter, longer-lasting, GPS, and became swim-proof.
HomePod is a super interesting new product as well — but if past is prologue, the next version will be even more interesting.
In this case, though, I don’t think it’ll take full-on, next-generation hardware to get it there. Apple can do a lot to improve the first gen HomePod simply through software updates. So, consider this more of a HomePod 2.0 wish-list than a pure HomePod 2 one — though I’ll sneak a little of that on at the end.
1. Apple TV magic
The moment HomePod was announced, many of us Apple TV owners immediately imagined pairing the two together.
I used to use a fancy Dolby 7.1 system, but the moment it fell out of warranty, it began blocking all content with false HDCP flags. Total loss. So vowing to never fall prey to that again, I went all in on a SONOS home theater system. Just one little optical cable from TV to the soundbar, mesh to the sub and surround Play:3, and all my TV filled my room.
I hoped HomePod could replace even the need for that one optical cable and those four separate speakers, provide room-filling, computationally mapped sound all on its own. Or, better still, two HomePods as a matched pair to really fill up the room.
Others, those who didn’t have a wired receiver or existing wireless speaker system imagined getting HomePod as their first, best, and only Apple TV speaker.
The dream was, HomePod would pair was automagically with Apple TV as AirPods do with iPhone and, once you paired them, they’d go into TV priority mode and just work for all your home theater needs.
Alas, no such specialized pairing exists at present.
You can absolutely stream from your Apple TV to your HomePod over AirPlay. Eventually, you’ll be able to stream to a pair of HomePods over AirPlay 2. But that’s all it’ll be with the current implementation. A stream. And issuing non-TV commands could be interruptive to say the least
Devoting an entire HomePod to an Apple TV may not be the most flexible use of its capabilities, but it’s what some segment of users wants to do and it would be great if Apple figured out a way to let HomePod and Apple TV make magic together.
2. SiriKit for media… and more
SiriKit is Apple’s application programming interface (API) for Siri, its personal digital assistant. With it, third-party developers can integrate their apps and services so that Siri can control them. It’s not an endless list of simple skills but a robust infrastructure that allows for variances. At launch, HomeKit supports SiriKit extensions for messaging apps (like WhatsApp), to do apps (like OmniFocus or Things), and note-taking apps. But that’s it.
Ride-sharing, payments, reservations, exist on iOS but haven’t shown up yet on HomePod. And they should.
What HomePod is screaming for, though, is SiriKit for audio apps.
- Music apps, like Spotify and Google Music.
- Podcast apps, like Overcast and Pocket Casts.
- Spoken word apps, like Audible and Anchor.
Apple could always partner with services to bring then onto HomePod, but SiriKit would open it up to all services, new and small.
3. Unified mesh Siri
Right now, there’s a different Siri for different devices, all with different capabilities. Siri on Apple TV is far more limited than iPhone or iPad, but has deep media knowledge and can even handle multi-language queries where, for example, a French speaker asks for a movie with an English title. Siri on Mac can interact with files and persist results but, frustratingly, can’t control HomeKit.
Not being able to count on Siri to do something regardless of which device you ask to do it’s bad for users. It creates uncertainty which chills usage.
Having all those Siri-capable devices could and should be a huge strength.
Apple devices can already quickly communicate with each other to determine which one should respond to “Hey Siri.” They keep in contact using their own short-range network and “vote” on which device they think you’re addressing.
Also, Apple Watch can already offer to send answers it’s not capable of displaying on its own to your iPhone via Continuity.
The best solution would be for all devices to be able to display (Siri-specific views) or read out all responses to all queries, harnessing the capabilities of any Siri device within range. In other words, surfacing the network as a mesh assistant voting not only on which device should answer, but which one is best capable of answering. In cases where those legitimately differ, Siri could even offer to send results to another device.
For example, HomePod: “I’ve found a list of movies playing nearby. Would you like me to read them to you or send them to your iPhone for you?” Then you could choose to browse and even take the results with you.
(Especially because, in a unified world, all devices would have some way to bookmark or pin Siri results the way Mac can.)
4. Voice ID and deep, personal context
Apple has been working on Voice ID for Siri for a long time. It shipped the first version with iPhone 6s and “Hey, Siri” and it’s gotten better over time. HomePod, at least at launch, doesn’t seem to have any Voice ID capability, and that greatly limits what it can do in a multi-user environment like the home.
Perhaps it’s iOS’ historic lack of multiple account support — only Apple TV offers even basic multiple account handling — or perhaps it simply isn’t rock solid yet. Either way, it seems inevitable. The ability to use biometric voice prints to authenticate different family members opens up HomePod to being truly useful for everyone in the family.
That way, one roommate doesn’t get another roommates messages, or parents don’t get the favorites playlist filled with Raffi instead of Reggae.
(Though individual users will still have to decide if the contents of their messages, for example, from something as innocuous as planning a surprise party to as compromising as a liaison or illegal activities should really be read out loud at all, ever.)
Importantly, it would let Siri start to build up individual profiles for us. Right now, AI assistants aren’t that intelligent. They can learn to better understand what we’re saying when we ask for a Lyft but they don’t really learn that we prefer Lyft to Uber. Likewise, they can start a connected shower for us when asked, but they don’t really learn that we always want a shower started when we finish a workout. Deep context and prescience are next steps, not current tech.
But, to get there, Siri will need to safely, securely, privately start learning and understanding us far, far better. Siri Sync, which currently makes sure the training we do on one device carries over to the next, is a good framework to build on. And Apple’s policy of tokenizing identify, encrypting traffic, and not leaving data around for commercial use, is reassuring.
But there’s still a ton of work that needs to be done.
5. HomePod mini
HomePod isn’t an Amazon Echo competitor any more than MacBook Air was a netbook competitor. Both had some of the elements people liked about the other products but neither had the bargain basement prices that defined them. MacBook Air was thin and light, but it wasn’t cheap. HomePod can be controlled by your voice, but it isn’t $50 a pop.
Apple historically doesn’t compete for customers for whom lowest price is the most important feature. While Apple doesn’t do cheap, though, the company has done less expensive. iPod mini is, perhaps, the quintessential example. iPad mini is another one. HomePod mini could be another.
Not everyone wants or needs a room-filling speaker. For some, a smaller speaker for the kitchen, bedroom, or children’s room, or to travel with and take in the camper or to the hotel room, would be ideal.
It still wouldn’t be a $50 Amazon Echo competitor — Apple wouldn’t do cheap speakers any more than it would do cheap netbooks — but it would be a less expensive speaker for those who want to fill smaller rooms and nooks.
It’s just as likely Apple will follow the typical iOS device strategy instead: When a new HomePod is released, the old one will be price-dropped by $100, or a new but less expensive version will be introduced — like iPhone 5c or Apple Watch Series 1 — that fills that price point in the lineup.
But I like the idea of a HomePod mini as well. Like iPhone SE, it’s not just about a lower price but a smaller profile.