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How Apple can fix the HomePod for 2020

Two white homepods sitting on a television stand
Two white homepods sitting on a television stand (Image credit: iMore)

Seven years ago or so, when Apple first started working on the HomePod, they just wanted to make a great sounding speaker that you could drop anywhere in a room and that would sound great no matter where you dropped it or where you were standing to listen to it.

They were investing heavily in building up their audio engineering team and delving deeply into the concepts around computational audio. Hardware and software tightly integrated together. Apple's forte. So what could possibly go wrong?

Well, in the time it took Apple to bring the HomePod to market, the market had changed. Amazon had shipped the Echo with Alexa, Google had begun replicating them, and, it turns out, Apple had brought a premium speaker to a commodity assistant market.

There have been a couple of software updates since, but nothing that set fire to the HomePod like the early, heady days of the iPhone, iPad, Watch, probably even Apple TV.

So, what can Apple do now? How can the HomePod be fixed?

I'm Rene Ritchie and this… is Vector.

HomePod SDK

Last year, we got a couple of new features for the 2018 HomePod. Specifically, multi-user support for personal requests, handoff, so you could tap your iPhone to switch your tunes, and LiveRadio for all the online broadcasts.

Just last week, Bloomberg's Mark Gurman rumored that this year, we may be getting direct support for third-party music services like Spotify. That way, instead of having to ask Siri for them by name, or AirPlay them, you could just set them as default.

I don't know if that means a full-on HomePod SDK, like the Apple TV or Apple Watch enjoy, but that'd be all shades of awesome.

See, I love my HomePods. I use them all the time. Having ambient computing in the home is just pure sci-fi. All-day, every day, I walk around telling Siri to turn lights on and off, open and close windows, play and pause stuff on my Apple TV, to look up the spelling of words or postal codes, to tell me stuff from Wikipedia while I work.

If there was an SDK, it'd be a phenomenal way to contribute towards getting us to the ambient computing, voice-driven future just that much faster.

Because the HomePod looks great. It sounds great. But even beyond an SDK, it still has these quirks and limitations that prevent it from being everything it could be.

Siri

Fixing Siri is at the top of any fixing HomePod list. I've done a bunch of videos on this already and I've got more on the way, so hit subscribe and you won't miss any of them.

Suffice it to say, I use Siri all the time. I'm a firm believer that voice interfaces are a big part of the future of human-machine interaction, and that SiriOS is the inevitable AI layer that'll glue it all together.

I'm super enthusiastic that Apple hired away John Gianandrea, Google's former head of search and AI, to lead Apple's new AI organization and think it'll be as important to the next decade of products as Johnny Srouji's silicon organization has been to the last decade.

They're the ones I'm counting on to deliver SiriOS, a mesh of hyper-personalized functionality that can move between our devices, to always give us the best information in the most convenient way at the moment.

But the longer that turn around takes, the longer we wait, the more often our interactions aren't enjoyable and fruitful but unpredictable and frustrating, the more and more scorched Siri becomes. The more and more the memes become the opposite of AirPods. The greater and greater the pressure becomes to butterfly keyboard it and rebrand and replace it with something, anything better.

If there's an existential user experience threat on the horizon, it isn't bugs in iOS or macOS, it isn't onanistic debates over photorealism, digital authenticity, and neumorphism, it isn't security vs. convenience.

Right now, it's Siri, and it's just most glaring on the HomePod.

And the only way to fix it is to start talking about Siri updates, not just to voice quality or feature sets, but to actual consistency and performance, and then ship them in a way everyone instantly experiences the improvements.

And, in before all the comments, I'd add increased international support to the list, which used to be an industry-leading point of pride and now just seems to be falling increasingly behind. But, honestly, right now, the foundations just need to finish being reset before any more buildout.

Bluetooth & Line-in

I think I get why HomePod shipped only supporting Apple's own AirPlay protocol. Like I said, it was a premium speaker that suddenly found itself competing in a commodity assistant market. All Apple could really lean on was the sound quality and to put that much effort into designing the hardware and software systems only to have reviewers and customers take them home and Bluetooth beam to them, with all the limitations and degradations of that technology, well, it would have obliterated the only real edge the HomePod had left.

So, they brought Wi-Fi to a Bluetooth fight. Sonos did the same thing and for the exact same reasons.

No one wants their high-end box connected to a string with a tin can at the end.

Well, except for Google, who includes both Bluetooth and line-in audio on the Google Home Max. And Amazon, who includes Bluetooth, line-in, and optical in on the Echo Studio.

The very idea of Bluetooth probably makes audiophile's itch as much as the idea of optical in makes them drool, but to me it all comes down to accessibility.

Apple makes Apple Music for Android not because they'e a huge and typical Android development shop, not in the least, but, in part, because there's an Apple Music family plan and some families are multi-platform and a family plan that doesn't serve the whole family is just a non-starter.

Well, I'd argue the HomePod is a family device and there will be people in families with a wide range of devices and if Apple doesn't do the easy if itchy thing and just add Bluetooth support in for every device, it makes the HomePod just a non-starter for those families.

Maybe Apple could figure out a way to make an AirPlay 2 app for Android that could be used for any arbitrary audio app instead and better, but that would add a ton of complexity and overhead as well.

If Bluetooth is good enough for AirPods, and they're a best seller, it's good enough for HomePod, especially to get it selling.

And, of course, on future models, line and optical in would be the dream of everyone just dying to hear room-filling computational vinyl as well.

Mini, Hub, & TV

The most popular, the best-selling smart speakers don't tend to be the big, multi-hundred dollar top-of-the-line, high-end, premium models like Google Home Max or Amazon Echo Studio or, yeah, Apple HomePod.

They're the smaller, far less expensive, Google Home Mini or Amazon Echo Dot. And Apple still doesn't have anything in that category.

The company that gave us the iPod and iPod mini, eventually nano. The Mac mini. The iPad mini. Hey, we even have two tiers of AirPods now.

But HomePod? Meh.

I totally get why Apple doesn't play the netbook game. They'd rather not compete in a market segment at all then compete in a completely commoditized market where the most important feature is cheap.

But as the iPod mini and nano showed, and the iPad mini and Mac mini still show, there are markets for smaller and less expensive versions that aren't cheap-as-in-commodity.

Now, I hate it as much as the next person when bloggers, podcasters, and YouTubers trample over Apple's market research and just spend all their money, especially when Apple's the one with all the data.

But, it took some good old-fashioned media pushing and prodding to get Apple into the iPad mini market, so at the very least I'm hoping more podding can get them to at least re-examine the HomePod mini market.

I'll just say this plainly: There is no way in hell I'd ever put an Amazon or Google microphone in my house, much less any kids room. I'll burn this whole place to the ground first. There is just absolutely no alignment of privacy or interest there at all, whatsoever, point final.

But I do want that functionality, so I'm left with the HomePod. And, a HomePod mini would mean I could have that functionality, kids could have that functionality, and not just in smaller places but more places. More rooms.

Add a dock to it so you could slap on an iPhone or iPad, including that $329 10.2-inch iPad, and it wouldn't just compete with all the other mini dot speakers, but the show hubs as well. Fantastic bedside, in the kitchen, or anywhere for video and FaceTime.

About the only other things I'd want is still a dedicated Apple TV mode so I could not just pair them as an AirPlay source, but set them up as a permanent soundbar if that's what I want.

Don't get me wrong, a full-on TheaterPod would be even better, but the dedicated Apple TV mode would be enough to again expand the jobs the HomePod could get done.

So that, one day, it could become full-on Javis, Friday, EDITH.

That's what I'd love to see Apple do with the HomePod, hardware and software, to really bring it into its own and be hyper-competitive, even just at the higher-end, and for those for whom privacy really matters, most especially in the home.

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Rene Ritchie
Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

9 Comments
  • Some good points. Siri has gone from cutting edge to an embarrassment. Oh I use it, but I don't use it as much as I wish I could, and I don't use it in public. Too many times the answers are just silly. Too many times I have to rephrase the question three times to get Siri to come up with an even sort of close answer. I keep Siri switched off unless I call her up manually. No Hello Siri for me, I've seen too many times she will jump into a conversation with a farcical non-sequitur. Siri needs an overhaul. "There is no way in **** I'd ever put an Amazon or Google microphone in my house, much less any kids room. I'll burn this whole place to the ground first. "
    So true. They aren't personal assistants as much as home spies. I will not have one and I will not use one.
  • There is no reason AT ALL for the HomePod to not use bluetooth. It just comes across as "Apple lock-in". Bluetooth has come a LONG way since the HomePod was designed. I have bluetooth speakers that sound astonishing. With no "computational audio" AKA over-processed audio. Just great speakers and lots of power. Of course, none of them are smart speakers. They are just speakers. I want speakers so I can listen to them. I don't want speakers that listen to me. All that needs fixed is to add bluetooth and lower the price. You can already buy them on eBay for $200. The original $350 price was absurd.
  • Gonna say comparing iPhone etc to HomePod is some what lame.for an argument to improve a speaker.
  • Rene, You stated “ I'll just say this plainly: There is no way in **** I'd ever put an Amazon or Google microphone in my house, much less any kids room. I'll burn this whole place to the ground first.“ but then in the very next sentence you lament about wanting the same features. How is it you can offer a fair comparison when you don’t even own a competing product in your home?
  • One would come from Apple with its commitment to privacy and not mining user data. the other comes from Google which is founded on the principle of mining any and all data gathered licitly or illicitly. Google who does this often despite promises to not do it THIS time. Google who can and has sold the data to anyone regardless of consequences.
  • I’ve long said that the HomePod’s biggest problem is cost. I held out until I could get a pair for $199 apiece just before Christmas. I liked them well enough that I wanted to pick up a second pair. But by that time the price was back up to $299 each so I didn’t buy. Well, today Best Buy put them back on sale for $199 each and I scarfed up that second pair. At that price, I can wait for Siri to continue her slow evolution—and she DOES get incrementally better with each software update.
  • I agree Rene! Apple needs to get back in the game! If I was Apple I would use PoE and then you could offer the PoE injector or if the home was already wired with PoE then its a simple RJ45 plug in! And besides Ethernet is still faster than WiFi!
  • I would love to buy one but they cost $399 plus 13% tax in Canada. I am holding out to see if they will make an improved version this year and lower the cost.
  • If Apple allowed Sonos Beam to be an AirPlay 2 source, rather than just a receiving speaker, I would have at least one HomePod right now. As it is, I went with all Sonos, because I wouldn't want the best sounding and most expensive speaker (other than the subwoofer) to be useless except when using Apple TV.