HomePod Pricing

It’s always funny when journalists give advice to Apple. Here’s Shira Ovide at Bloomberg who suggest Apple’s HomePod is priced too high:

But if Apple truly wants to become more than a hardware company, it needs to think different — to steal from a Steve Jobs advertising campaign. It needs the quality of its digital music service, mapping app, Siri, future web video products and more to be up to par and not only good enough to help differentiate its hardware from that of rivals. Apple doesn’t necessarily need to sell $50 Siri speakers. But if Apple wants its software and internet offerings to stand on their own, then it needs to borrow from Amazon and Google and make the hardware a means to an end — and rethink gadget prices, too.

The same thing was said about the AirPods. But interestingly Apple has been selling AirPods so quickly that they have barely been able to produce enough of them to keep up with demand. Apple never engages in the race to the bottom as we see is now happening between Amazon and Google as their smart speaker prices fall lower and lower. The market is flooded with dirt-cheap tablets but iPads continue to sell at normal iPad prices. Same goes for the AppleWatch. And the iPhone X. The list goes on.

It always surprises me that journalists and analysts get to keep their jobs regardless of how consistently wrong they are.

Given the number of bluetooth speakers that are available in the $300+ range I consider the HomePod at less than $400 a bargain. Unlike a bluetooth speaker which does nothing but play music piped in from nearby device, a HomePod is a self-contained speaker capable of not only pulling down it’s own music via the internet but will also allow for playing from iPhones, iPads, AppleTVs. Not to mention all the features that come along with Siri and the convenience of voice control.

HomePod and the Siri Ecosystem

homepod-white-shelf

I’ve recently written about my hopes for a more proactive Siri. I’ve written about Siri quite a bit over the past couple years and it’s been mostly positive. Frankly, I think “she” is pretty fantastic and I call upon her many times a day. I remember when a friend first showed me his Echo a couple years back. I instantly wanted a Siri powered speaker by Apple. I’ve been waiting ever since. I will buy the HomePod the day it becomes available. No hesitation and with the same excitement and for the same reasons as I bought the AirPods the minute they were available: music, podcasts, Siri.

But much of the tech press has another take on the voice assistant market. Over the past couple of years it’s become fashionable in the tech media, especially among the Apple nerds that love to pride themselves on their very high standards, to complain about Siri while holding up high Alexa and the Echo1.

Interestingly, Pew has recently come out with an article on the very issue of voice assistants by Americans. Not too surprisingly 46% use voice assistants and of that 42% access via smartphone. 14% access via computer or tablet. Only 8% access via a stand-alone device such as an Echo. My own experience and observation of family mirror this. Practically all of my extended family have and use Siri on a myriad of devices on a daily basis. But in that same group the Echo is only in one household.

There are a few exceptions to the common chorus of the bandwagon and two of my favorites are Daniel Erin Dilger and Neil Cybart. They offer a more mature, big picture analysis. It’s less about whether or not they are personally pleased with how a product suits them but more about the larger context and trends. They seem to do a much better job of taking into account how the potential interactions of the larger public will play out.

I agree with their recent analysis of the HomePod, digital assistants and devices. Their posts were less about Siri and more about the varied form factors of devices through which digital assistants are accessed as well as the larger function of those devices.

First, Daniel Erin Dilger over at AppleInsider recently discussed the intent of Apple’s upcoming HomePod. I agree with his take on it, nicely summarized by the article title, Apple’s HomePod isn’t about Siri, but rather the future of home audio. He does a great job of digging into the difference in the intended function of the devices. Specifically, the role of the devices in the home. This bit comparing the audio quality of HomePod to the Echo made me giggle:

It’s an emotional experience, which is exactly what Apple has been increasingly pursuing as it enhances its products. Amazon Alexa isn’t an emotional experience; it’s an intellectual one. It’s a polite conversation with a librarian who moonlights as a sales agent at an online warehouse and plays songs with the fidelity of a clock radio.”

Over at Above Avalon Neil Cybart recently wrote a post in which he explores, in part, the bias of the media in relation to the perceived success of the platforms and ecosystems. As he has in the past, he does an excellent job of providing some context about where the market is at based on numbers rather than the din emanating from the excited bandwagon.

We are in the midst of a massive mindshare bubble involving stationary smart speakers in the home. While the press talk up the category with near breathless enthusiasm and positivity, there is a growing amount of evidence that stationary smart speakers powered by digital voice assistants do not represent a paradigm shift in computing. Instead, the stationary smart speaker’s future is one of an accessory, and it will be surpassed in prominence by wearables. It’s time to call out the stationary smart speaker market for what it is: a mirage.

On more than one occasion Neil has compared the consistent praise heaped upon the Echo as compared to the criticism put upon the Apple Watch which, in terms of sales, has not only sold more units but at a greater profit. Amazon is practically giving away its Echo devices. Put another way, in terms of the number of form factors offered by each ecosystem, Apple’s is far more diverse and as a result, more useful and it’s also making a profit for the company.

Another of my favorites and the host of the Vector Podcast, Rene Ritchie, has recently covered the topic with guests in two different episodes.

The first, in which Rene interviewed Jan Dawson in episode 18, mirrored the points made Neil Cybart. Jan points out that contrary to the fixation on the Echo, it’s actually Siri that has the largest number of users. The only way that Apple appears to be behind is if we focus only on home speaker hardware such as the Echo, a market Apple has yet to enter but will enter in early 2018. But he correctly points out that Alexa-based hardware, as a share of the voice assistant market, is actually very small. He also makes the point that voice, as a computer UI, is still only one in a larger pool of UIs and that it is often not appropriate for use in many settings.

In the second, Rene interviews Ben Bajarin in episode 35. In this second interview Ben Bajarin disagrees somewhat the the above three takes. He suggests that there is a large and growing market for what he calls ambient computing. He suggests that Google is in the weakest position with search being it’s differentiator. Amazon is in a very good position with it’s differentiator being commerce. He goes on to say that Apple is very much a part of the market and that it’s differentiator is communications and service. He also suggests that while Apple is already in the game he looks for them to do more a lot more.

In the second half of the interview there is a great conversation about Siri’s future. Ben Contends that Siri is already quite good and that the general public is largely satisfied with it. They then delve into machine learning for Siri and the line that Apple is walking in regards to differential privacy as a technique for collecting large-scale social data and how this contrasts with more personalized data as the base for machine learning. It’s a great conversation.

I’m with Ben that I hope Apple can figure out how to better personalize it’s approach. In short, many of us trust Apple with our data and would like Apple to use it for a more fine-tuned machine learning for individuals. Their discussion concludes on the problem of making Siri in the HomePod work in the context of families. How can a communal device be used in both a communal context and an personal one? Or can it?

It will be interesting to see how the Apple’s Siri ecosystem evolves. While Amazon is offering various Echo devices all of which are tied to the home2, Apple offers global distribution in many languages in form factors ranging from wearables to pocketable to carried and soon, a stationary, home device. In the Apple ecosystem I am connected to Siri and thus, a variety of services, all of the time. Or, more precisely, anywhere I have an internet connection which, these days is almost everywhere I am. In other words, Siri is already providing, to a great degree, ambient voice-controlled computing.

This plethora of devices has me covered in a variety of circumstances but I’m curious to see how that works in the home with the HomePod. I’ll have an iPhone and iPad sitting within range all the time. The watch on my wrist and the HomePod somewhere in the room. What will happen when I say “Hey Siri”? I’m just one person in a tiny house. I’m also curious what happens when you have 4 or 5 family members each with devices in a larger house. Currently Siri does a good job of responding only to the device owner and even does a pretty good job of responding with the right device when several “Hey Siri” devices are within range. I assume this will be no different when the HomePod is introduced.

The new year is around the corner and with it the HomePod. I’m looking forward to trying it out. I don’t doubt that Apple is working on making all of it’s Siri devices work well together. I’ve got a spot on my shelf waiting for the new arrival.


  1. I‘ve come to dislike the Apple-oriented echo-chamber because they seem to approach every new thing from a very narrow perspective. To my ears and eyes, it comes off as snobbery. ↩︎
  2. And just a handful of countries ↩︎

A Proactive Siri

First, just a few notes about my Siri usage. I use Siri daily, many times a day calling on “her” from every iOS device I own. I’ve always wanted the pervasive, ever present computer from Star Trek. Siri is one of my favorite iOS features. I tend to activate her via a mix of “Hey Siri” and tapping the AirPods and the keyboard on the iPad. Most of my usage is Homekit-related, adding calendar and to-do items, music control and a good number of informational queries such as conversions, spelling, and factoid searches. But with Siri, and to my knowledge, all other voice assistants, the user makes a request first. It occurred to me that there are two times a day when I would like Siri to initiate a “session”.

Imagine starting your morning with a new, more pro-active Siri. Essentially, I’d like a Siri wake-up greeting. Combine the iOS morning alarm, perhaps couple of chimes followed by Siri offering a few configured options such as weather, calendar review, and the morning news. Eve better, what about “Siri Scenes” integrated with the Home App? Add a light or other devices to the above scene?

Then again, imagine a Siri “Goodnight” scene. Because night time might vary a bit more this might be scheduled and again, start off with a couple of gentle chimes and then Siri would ask if I’m ready for bed. At that point I might say in twenty minutes which would set a reminder. 20 Minutes later again the gentle chimes followed by Siri reading the forecast for tomorrow, events, reminders, turning off lights, etc. Then end with “would you like any music?” Or perhaps I’m the only one in the habit of going to bed to music? So this would be a set automation which would kickoff at my usual bedtime but which could be delayed by anytime I respond with. If I’m working late I might say “give me 30 minutes” or check back at 10.

Wake-up and bed-time are two times a day when we have fairly consistent, repeatable routines and it seems an idea opportunity for Apple to dip into the possibility of offering a new level of Siri engagement. I think it would be a great experience.

The iPad Laptop

I’ve always used the iPad with an external keyboard and with the Pro I’ve been using Apple’s Smart Keyboard. I love the feel and sound of the keys though have been wishing for media keys and the other special function keys such as brightness, volume etc. Oh, and a back light which may not be possible with a fabric covered keyboard. The beauty of the iPad and one of my reasons for switching to it as a primary machine is that it can be a tablet when I want or a laptop when I want.

That said, as much as I’ve enjoyed using the Smart Keyboard I’ve got to admit I’ve been longing for Apple to make a keyboard like the Brydge. Others have written about the Brydge which is often described as very similar to an Apple laptop keyboard. Most recently Jason Snell wrote an excellent piece on Why Apple’s next laptop should run iOS. He’d previously written a review of the Brydge and mentions it again:

The problem with the iPad Pro is that it’s literally not a laptop: You can’t comfortably set it in your lap and get work done. (Yes, you can kind of balance the Smart Keyboard on your lap, but it’s not the same as using a laptop—in terms of stability or adjustability.) This year I’ve been using my iPad Pro with the Brydge keyboard, a Bluetooth keyboard with two clamps that turn the iPad Pro into something that looks an awful lot like a laptop—albeit one with no trackpad.

Seeing his mention of it and the accompanying photo sent me off to have another look. The only reason I’d previously held off were the many reports of hit and miss quality. Lots of folks report getting units that had to be replaced, often more than once. Yikes. By chance I happened to look around Thanksgiving and they were running a Black Friday sale so I finally bought it and have been using it for about a week.

The Brydge arrived in perfect condition. It is, as reported by many, very similar to typing on the keyboard of a current generation MacBook Air or the previous generation of MacBook Pro. Which is to say, it’s excellent. It is very nearly the perfect iPad keyboard. I can slide the iPad into the hinge connectors easily but not too easily. They grip it well so it feels secure. I really only have two complaints.

The top, outer edge of this keyboard is very sharp. It almost feels like a knife blade. Second, the iPad rests deep enough in the hinges that the bottom edge of the screen is just level with the back of the keyboard which means using my fingers to pull-up to activate the dock and multitasking of iOS 11 is very difficult and often results in misses. Very frustrating. If I put the iPad into the hinge brackets but don’t push it all the way down it still sits above the back of the unit and activating the dock is easy. If it just sat 1-2 millimeters higher, access to the dock and multitasking would be much better.

I added a tiny bit of rubber with sticky backing into the bottom of each hinge to lift the iPad up just a wee bit. Not only does it make activating the dock/multitasking much easier it has the additional benefit that when closed the iPad sticks out just that little bit over the keyboard front of the keyboard. By design it is flush with the keyboard and while that looks great aesthetically when closed it makes lifting the iPad up difficult. If the iPad overhangs just a millimeter or two it is easier to lift and open for use.

If the design were tweaked these are issues that could be fixed without too much difficulty and they really should be.

Back to Jason Snell who posted a follow-up article on the idea of an iOS laptop, this time addressing the critiques of his initial article. In the follow-up, The case against building an iOS laptop—and why it might happen anyway, he writes:

I use my iPad with external keyboards all the time. Sometimes it’s clipped into a keyboard case, so it’s shaped exactly like a laptop. Sometimes it’s on a table with a Smart Keyboard attached. Other times, it’s in a stand on a table with a USB keyboard attached via Apple’s USB 3-Lightning adapter…

If I were doing something that didn’t require typing, something that involved intense tapping and swiping on my iPad, the Zombie Arms experience would start to come to the fore. On the iPad, that’s when I would disconnect the keyboard and hold the tablet more naturally. (That’s why I think an iOS laptop would ideally be a convertible laptop, so you could fold back the keyboard entirely when it isn’t needed.)

I’ve been using mine like this too. My only disagreement is that I think the current iPad is the iPad Jason is describing. I don’t think Apple needs to do much aside from build a proper keyboard. Just tweak the current Brydge a bit and give it the usual Apple fit and finish. Perhaps fix the orientation of the Apple logo on the back of the iPad to reflect a primary horizontal orientation. If Apple could create a hinge with the Smart Connector and a magnetic lock-in we would have the tablet/laptop combination.

As is I think the Brydge does this right now though it is bluetooth based whereas an Apple solution would use the Smart Connector. I’ve only had a week with the Brydge but this combination feels nearly perfect. It’s a laptop when I want a laptop, a tablet when I want a tablet. The effort required to switch form factors is simply to lift the iPad from the hinges or to place in back in them.

What’s a computer

In one of Apple’s latest iPad ads we see a student exploring the city and making great use of an iPad in various locations. It’s a fantastic example of the many ways an iPad can be used. I think this is my favorite iPad ad to date. It’s a tool for exploring and creating. Good stuff.

Apple Watch Series 3

I never write reviews. There are plenty of folks doing that sort of thing. But I often post a few brief thoughts on new purchases.

I’ve not been a watch wearer in many years. And with the iPhone felt even less of a need to have one. I don’t need a watch given that I always have the phone with me. Since it’s release the Apple Watch has been only a slight interest for me, primarily in terms of it’s health application. But with Apple Music and AirPods the interest grew. The prospect of being able to get out for walks and still enjoy music and track steps without the phone was appealing.

I finally decided to give it a go with the Apple Watch Series 3 and I’ve not been disappointed.

I bought it with LTE but haven’t used the LTE much. I’m on Sprint and the signal here is a bit weak and so often times the watch doesn’t have an LTE signal. Not a big problem. I usually have the phone with me anyway. I do a lot of walking and outside work around the cabin and the watch continues to work as fitness tracker and for the Apple Music with our without a cell signal or nearby phone.

As a fitness tracker the watch is great. I’d expected that having the rings would be an additional motivator and that’s true. I didn’t have a problem getting in 10,000 steps on a regular basis but I knew that that was not the complete picture. The rings also provide a nice tracker of intensity, particularly the green ring. Turns out I can get all the steps and fill the red ring but not fill the green because 30 minutes of exercise requires a certain intensity, a higher level of exertion. So, now I don’t just get my steps I also make sure to quicken my pace for some of my walks. I’ve also learned that cutting grass with my electric push mower burns a lot more calories than I realized due to increased intensity.

Nice.

Music on the watch with the AirPods is excellent and honestly, LTE is not required. The watch easily syncs music when plugged in and attached to Wifi. By default it syncs Apple playlists such as New Music, Favorites, and Chill as well as any recent/often listened to music. I can also add any playlist I want. The result is that I have yet to need streaming when playing from the watch. The watch also works as a great remote if I happen to be playing music from the iPhone.

I’m not using many apps aside from Music and the fitness related apps. I’ve got Carrot Weather which is nice and I’ve found Messages pretty useful.

Last is Siri which probably could have come first. I use Siri a lot. Many times a day and Siri on the Watch is fantastic! Very fast and accurate. Possibly better than any other Apple device. A very pleasant surprise. I’ve now got Siri on my wrist, my phone and two always on iPads. Whether I’m scheduling an event, fast forwarding a podcast, creating a reminder or turning off the lights it is rare that I do not get the response I want.

As I wrote above, I’ve not been a watch wearer in a long time. But I am a Star Trek nerd and honestly, when I saw this LTE equipped watch in the keynote a couple months ago my brain just sort of tweaked. From the iPhone to iPad, we’ve had several years of amazing technology that seems like it belongs to the future. This watch is another part of that ecosystem, even smaller and less obtrusive than it’s larger siblings.

I think  wearing a tiny computer on my wrist is a habit I’ll be getting used to.

Catching Up

Wow. It’s been on my mind that I’d not posted to either of my blogs recently. September 29th since my last here. Jeesh.

A few things I’d like to address in upcoming posts. A few thoughts on recent Apple tech purchases, namely the Series 3 watch and the iPhone X. Oh, and I finally took a chance on the Brydge keyboard for the 12.9” iPad. Thus all three have proven to be excellent choices though it’s still early. More soon.

AppleTV Discoverability

I’m a big fan of AppleTV & Apple Music. I use them both daily. Yesterday I discovered an artist while out on a walk while listening to one of Apple’s suggested playlists: “Zone In”. I played a couple tunes by the artist on the iPhone. Today I opened Music on the AppleTV and there, in recently listened songs were a couple by that artist. I played one then wanted to play more music by the artist. But as far as I can tell, there’s no way to jump to that artist. Searching via “Find more songs by this artist” does not work. There’s no button to push.

No_artist

No option to view the artist! The first song, when selected, showed the album cover art and the “… More” button. I looked there and no go. The options were Delete, Play Next, Play Later, Create Station”. Same thing for another of his albums. Hmmm.

While looking at that screen it occurred to me to try Siri on the remote. So, I pressed the Siri button and asked for more music by this artist. Nope, that function does not work in that way. Interesting because I can, from that screen in Music use the Siri button and, for example, get a list movies staring Clive Owen. TV queries also work. But ask for more music from the currently displayed artist does not. Grrrrrrrr.

8DB5773D-F002-48CC-9DF1-B97AF3BCE4EB

Ah, What’s this?

I eventually found it but I think this is one of those features that is not very easily discovered. Turns out I had added both of these to my library while using my iPhone. When I did eventually discover (see image above) a way to look at the artist by clicking the album art on the now playing screen then clicking the … then clicking “Go to Artist” I was able to access his other albums. I clicked one of those albums and the screen for that album was very different from the others.

Artist

This screen included a button for “Go to Artist” below the cover art. The difference was that I had not previously added this to my library. At least, this is one difference that I noticed. Maybe there are other variables such as, did I mark the song “Loved”? I’m not certain what the rules are that will change the options presented on different screens.

I tend to think of myself as someone pretty capable of navigating these sorts of things but this took me awhile. That said, I’ve not used Music as much on the TV as I have on the iPhone/iPad. Maybe it is a question of spending more time using this particular app but that’s the point. There is a certain level of discoverability expected. The more a user has to work at this sort of thing the more frustrating it becomes and sometimes they just give up.

Seems to me that there are some improvements to be made here.

September 20, 2017

A quick test, & I’m really digging the drag & drop from apps to Pages! Also, Pages’ use of the Files app is very well done 🤓 iOS 11 👍🏽

Importing images via drag and drop in iOS 11

After using the iOS 11 beta on my iPad Air 2 for a month I decided to go ahead and update my Pro with the release of the Gold Master released by Apple on the 12th. Wow. So nice on the big screen!

As I was browsing Apple News I came across this Verge article on the best of Cassini’s images. I wondered, could I drag an image from the article directly into the Photos app to import? I assumed not. Well, I was wrong. It seems like drag and drop is everywhere in this version of iOS. Nifty!