People frequently choose the stupid, dangerous option of crossing a road on the crest of a hill, where they are unable to see any approaching traffic from the other side. Earlier this morning, I noticed a woman who was accompanying a young boy and a guide-dog-in-training across the road.
It has been some time since I first wrote about HomePod. Considering the general tech news angle that HomePod hasn’t been quite the success that Apple had imagined—which we don’t actually know for sure or in any real detail—I thought that it would be good to revisit the device and discuss how I’ve been using it.
Back in February when I first wrote about it, I only had one HomePod and was really impressed by the quality of the sound and oomph that it could produce. Set-up was easy, the build quality was fantastic and the integration with Apple Music and my own library was seamless. I now have two HomePods on my television cabinet, forming what Apple calls a ‘stereo pair’. The term ‘stereo’ is used here purely to represent two HomePods that coordinate as left and right speakers. In reality, they are communicating with each other via AirPlay 2, directing sound intelligently through each of the (combined) fourteen tweeters and two subwoofers. Both devices also contain their own custom amplifiers.
‘Stereo’ is transformed into a deeper, somewhat unbelievable soundstage that fills the room without any distortion with unparalleled audio separation. Old tracks shine and vocals are directed to the gap between the HomePods, making it seem like the person singing is right there in front of you.
HomePod stereo pair accompanied by Pâté the Duck…
The stereo pair also functions as my home theatre set-up, with sound diverted from my Apple TV when streaming movies and television programmes. To expand my home audio experience without paying for yet more HomePods, I followed the wise advice of writer and podcaster Jason Snell, picking up an old AirPort Express to integrate my old iPod Hi-Fi. This plays from the other side of my home, so that music continues to be crisp and audible even when I leave the lounge room.
People often complain that Siri doesn’t hear them properly on their Apple devices and that with the HomePod, it’s unclear if their voice has been picked up. I find this to be quite the exaggeration. My HomePod stereo pair is always quick to respond to commands (with 12 combined microphones!) and the only delays that I have noticed have been caused by Internet connection issues. This is fixed by rebooting the modem. Only once have I ever had to unplug the HomePods to reset them. Whether requesting music, sending messages, conducting phone / FaceTime Audio calls or using Siri Shortcuts to start a podcast episode on Overcast, Siri on the HomePods is generally reliable and fun to use.
Whilst I am impressed with the current accessory options for HomeKit, such as smart locks, automated lights and weather stations, I haven’t felt the need to dive into this world of expensive products. Sure, it would be great to bark at my HomePods to pull up a window-shade, however, it still isn’t necessary or particularly affordable to construct a smart home in 2019. Perhaps in the future!
For some time, Rene Ritchie of iMore and Vector has discussed the notion of ‘minimal delightful product’ when discussing Apple hardware. He defines it this way:
The minimum delightful product is that version of a new product which allows customers to experience the maximum amount of affinity with the smallest feature set.
His point is that the most successful Apple offerings have been those that might not have done everything upon release, but what they did do they did very well. iPhone, iPod and AirPods are great examples of this. The Apple Watch, whilst hyped at launch, was not necessarily able to achieve this minimal delight when it was first released to the public in 2015, with a plethora of apps and functions. I love Apple Watch and have worn it since the beginning, however it’s fair to argue that it lacked focus upon release. It tried to be too much at the time, whereas now Apple focuses its marketing communication on notifications, health and fitness.
Many would disagree, I’m sure, but HomePod fits this description of minimal delight for me. The device has great expandability through Siri and HomeKit, however, these are things that don’t get in the way at all. The HomePod, by design, is minimal in appearance and function and continues to be marketed mainly as a premium music-playback device. Tap on the top to control playback and volume; use your voice to request your music.
Whilst I am no musician, to me, music is one of the absolute greatest parts about life. It helps you to escape, unwind and even think clearly, in a way that can transcend even film and books. The design of the HomePod adds to this—I believe that those who have criticised its design and even price (as a higher-quality product than the Amazon Echo, for example) have misunderstood it. Moving away from listening to music on vinyl, your Mac, CDs or even iPhone, through HomePod you get to experience music as an entirely audio-based experience, with zero visual distractions. As depicted in its now famous Welcome Home ad by Spike Jonze, you can walk into your lounge room, lie down, request some music and have it simply happen. To me, this is pure delight based on minimal interaction. I don’t have to navigate anything—it just works.
I would go so far as to say that the HomePod is my favourite new Apple product today. AirPods are awesome for music and podcasts on the go but they’re a private experience. iPhone, Mac and iPad are devices that I love but work often follows me through them. My cellular Apple Watch Series 4 liberates me from social media and other apps, as I often leave my iPhone at home when exercising, going to dinner with my wife or even ducking out to the shops. Still, as brilliant as it is, the watch still keeps you connected.
Your HomePod doesn’t ping you with emails or pop up with calendar invitations for meetings. It is the pinnacle of premium minimalism and fulfils a remarkably simple purpose. I can request almost anything that I want, whether for a private musical escape or even a goofy dance party with my wife. When Apple says that music is in its DNA, I believe it.
You offer an iPhone XS Max, an iPhone XS, and an iPhone XS Mini. Or Micro. Or Nano. Or whatever. You already have the “medium” and “large” options, so you give the people what they actually seem to want: a “small” option too.
I could not agree more with this excerpt from a fantastic article by M.G. Siegler. He nailed it.
I have an iPhone 7 Plus, mainly because at the time that I purchased it I wanted the dual-camera module for depth mode. I still love the phone but miss the days of Apple’s famous ‘thumb-reachability’. Yes, I could spend the money on a new iPhone XS and technically have more screen in a smaller form factor, however that’s a lot of cash to replace my current and still very capable iPhone. I feel that this is part of the current issue of Apple’s maturing iPhone market. They’re so good now that it doesn’t make sense for everyone to upgrade every two years, as was once the norm with telco contracts.
Considering how successful the iPhone SE was due to both its size and price—almost everyone in my office has one as their official work phone—I don’t see what Apple’s mental block is to releasing its spiritual successor. Giving the old SE the iPhone X treatment by taking the screen all the way to the edge would be a very exciting development for small-phone devotees. Not to mention, the design of the SE (based on the 5 and 5S before it), is now actually closer to the hardware design of the new iPad Pro models. Jony Ive and his team would have almost no work to do.
Although I’m a dedicated Apple Watch user/wearer, I do occasionally monitor things in the land of Wear OS. You can’t ignore what’s happening elsewhere.
The fact that most Wear OS smartwatches are circular in design is fascinating to me, as this has led to a range of different user interface considerations, case shapes and band styles. I would argue that Apple strikes a better balance of visual design and function with its more square-shaped watch faces, as circular Wear OS smartwatches ultimately cut off or awkwardly format much of the written content.
My interest was piqued recently when I stumbled upon this article by Ars Technica by Ron Amadeo, which explains the recent acquisition of Fossil Group by Google, which could lead to some sort of ‘Pixel Watch’. The use of the word ‘doomed’ is a tad sensational and very familiar to Apple blog readers, however the article makes some great points. This part stood out to me, as it details the major issue with Wear OS and the way that Google operates in this space:
If Google really wants to fix Wear OS, the first thing it needs is to secure a good SoC supplier. Today, no component vendor sells a good smartwatch SoC that a company like Google can buy. Qualcomm is really the only game in town, and it doesn’t seem to care about the smartwatch market. Qualcomm has had three major “generations” of smartwatch chips: the Snapdragon 400, the Snapdragon Wear 2100, and the Snapdragon Wear 3100. Fundamentally, these three chips, released over a four-year span, are all the same. They all use Cortex A7 CPUs built on a 28nm manufacturing process, which was state-of-the-art smartphone technology back in 2013. Qualcomm hasn’t invested in building a serious smartwatch chip and instead only pays lip service to the market by repackaging the same core technology year after year. I don’t think it’s possible to build a viable, competitive smartwatch using a Qualcomm chip.
Apple’s greatest advantage in this market, like the others in which it participates, is its hardware prowess and ability to integrate its software and services simultaneously. Apple reimagined what a modern watch could be by essentially making it a computer on the wrist and prioritising the creation of an in-house S-series of chips, much like the A-series for iPhones and iPad. (Let’s see if Apple ends up extending this chip philosophy to Macs, with the oft-rumoured transition from Intel to ARM chips.)
Google and its partners made devices that look and feel like watches… but are slow to innovate or improve. Apple threw off the shackles of traditional watch design and ideals, keeping terms like ‘complications’ and ‘crown’ to make connections to the world of traditional watches for the sake of marketing and familiarity.
With the investment in silicon, Apple can deliver meaningful performance and feature improvements each and every year. Google tried to jump on the smartwatch bandwagon and probably assumed that it would have the same success and hardware proliferation as it did with Android on smartphones. Instead, the company has been left to deal with hardware and chip makers that operate on different schedules and with different values.
Again and again, we see the power of owning and designing the whole widget. I do hope that Google will have greater success with Wear OS, purely for greater competition and to keep Apple on its toes. I’m not holding my breath though.