To beat Google in the speaker war, Apple needs to deploy its secret mini weapon
Apple tends not to be a first mover when it comes to new technologies, which often leads to the popular phenomenon of pundits declaring that the company “needs” to make such-and-such a product. But the real issue when it comes to Apple’s devices is that it often seems like the company dips its toe in the waters of a product category…then quickly pulls back as it feels the icy waters.
Perhaps the best example in recent years is the HomePod. Smart speakers were a category that Apple entered well after other companies like Amazon and Google had rushed to market, but it proved to be a case where not only did Apple’s entry not dominate–the original HomePod was discontinued three years after it was first released, replaced by the cheaper HomePod mini. But the category itself has proved simultaneously popular and yet, in some high-profile cases, unprofitable.
Still, the HomePod mini’s second anniversary has come and gone with no updates to the device, making me worry about its future. So I’m here to plead on behalf of the smart speaker: not only do I hope Apple doesn’t send the HomePod mini to a farm upstate like its big sibling, but I’d like to see Apple invest more in the category. Specifically, I’d like to see Apple ship a HomePod with a screen.
We have a HomePod mini in our kitchen, where it primarily serves as a music player, timer, smart home controller, and way to add things to our grocery list. It does all of those things pretty well, even though Siri’s reliability has often been iffy at best.
But sometimes there’s just no replacement for a visual interface, whether it’s the ability to see all the timers that are currently running, or get glanceable information like a weather forecast or what events are upcoming on our family calendar. Amazon and Google have both shipped smart speakers with screens that prove the utility of the concept.
Rumor has it that Apple has worked on a prototype of a HomePod with a screen, which would marry an iPad with a HomePod, creating a Frankenstein device that would hopefully be the best of both worlds. Apple’s obviously unmatched when it comes to touchscreen devices, and while the result doesn’t need to be as featureful as an iPad, it opens up a lot of possibilities when it comes to improving the utility of this ambient computing device.
Speaking of a screen, another useful feature that such a device could offer would be digital photo frame capability. Recently my wife mentioned that she’d like to have a digital photo frame for her office to rotate through pictures of our four-month-old. But as I thought about it, I realized there weren’t great options in that category for users of Apple’s ecosystem.
For example, in my office, I have an original Google Nest Hub, a smart speaker with a small screen on it. Since I don’t generally use Google Assistant, I’ve left the microphone muted and instead basically turned it into a digital photo frame that pulls from a Google Drive folder of our wedding pictures. This works pretty great, but it’s also a static set of pictures that doesn’t change. (It helped that our wedding photographer shared the pictures with us on Google Drive in the first place, so I didn’t really have to do anything else.)
In the case of our kid, we’re taking new pictures all the time, which we keep in an iCloud Shared Photo Library. But there is, to my knowledge, no digital photo frame on the market that can just pull directly from iCloud Photos, adding new pictures to the rotation as they get added. Our only real option would be to set up an old iPad, which isn’t really an ideal use case.
But a standalone device like a HomePod with a screen could be great for that scenario, letting you simply log in to your iCloud account and then pull specified pictures–even taking advantage of some of the same machine learning features that Apple uses to show featured photos or create Memories. Apple has done a lot of work to surface your photos and help you remember and enjoy them; it’s surprising to me that it doesn’t have a way to easily display them on your desk.
Augmenting the ambient
But if there’s a reason that Apple might choose not to spend the time and money improving the HomePod, it could be that it’s at odds with what seems like another big initiative inside the company at present: augmented reality.
It’s clear that Apple is poised to make a big AR push in the coming year or two, and the eventual evolution of that technology falls broadly into the same category as the HomePod: ambient computing that’s around you at all times, rather than requiring you to be chained to a device. It’s not hard to imagine Apple envisioning a future where many of the same features of the HomePod are accomplished via a wearable device; say, using Siri on your AirPods, or seeing information on some sort of heads-up display.
That said, I think the HomePod’s model still has numerous benefits, perhaps most prominently that it’s a device that can easily be controlled by multiple users, unlike most of Apple’s other products, which provide, at best, lip service to this use case–I’m looking at you, Apple TV.
The HomePod’s not an amazing product, but it is the solid foundation of one. Iterating and improving is how Apple rolls but the basis of that–the very first thing that needs to happen–is for Apple to decide that it’s a product worth improving.