The “Siri Speaker” is the HomePod, other smart home news from WWDC 2017
The rumor mill ground to a halt and the long wait ended this morning, actually this afternoon, as Apple officially unveiled the HomePod: its high-end audio and smart speaker for the home.
There is also a video-based recap of the WWDC smart home-related news available.
But as for other smart home / home automation news, there really wasn’t any…at least specifically HomeKit or HomeKit-related. Craig Federighi spent less than two minutes discussing HomeKit, initially touting the more than 75 companies who currently support or are working on HomeKit support in their smart home devices. Also, there are now 16 (ok, make that 17) categories of devices that HomeKit supports, everything from lights to locks to sensors to…speakers! (Was that a specific hint about what was coming at the end of the keynote, Craig?)
While Craig did show-off a slide showing two speakers with status “playing”, the slide where you could control the audio didn’t seem to match standard HomeKit controls. He also revealed that whole-home audio, streaming to multiple speakers simultaneously, would be integrated into iOS 11. In addition, something called “Shared Up Next” for Apple Music, where your friends who are visiting could adjust your “up next” playlist. Craig also mentioned that the Apple TV would support streaming of audio from iOS devices through this new whole-home audio system. Note that at least some of this has been possible with iTunes on the Mac for a few years now. But as these new audio features are specifically for iOS 11, the general public won't experience them until this fall.
How smart can Siri get, really?
Before moving on to the elephant in the room, let’s take a step back. Throughout the keynote event, presenters mentioned how Siri was getting smarter. And, that her intelligence would be built by interactions with you on your device, but that intelligence would be shared across your devices so that smarts gained on one product would automatically be available on all of your Apple devices. Other than showing a demo of a webpage from Iceland, which then helped surface a Icelandic story in Apple News, followed by spelling help in Messages, they didn’t really speak of how this would work exactly.
Apple’s focus on privacy is both an advantage and disadvantage for the company. Sure, your information stays encrypted and doesn’t get pooled together with everyone else’s “anonymized” data in the cloud to make a better user experience and enhance AI capabilities. But, since Apple has to do nearly all of the learning about its users on their own devices, it doesn’t have the ability to use the mega-processing power of data centers to truly make that intelligence as useful as other (ahem, Google) companies. The bottom line is that Apple is generally behind others when it comes to making its assistant, Siri, useful, but they’re trying really, really hard.
How does this relate to home automation, the smart home and making our lives easier? Well, the company who ultimately has the easiest smart home platform, with the widest product support and an intelligent assistant to help users get the most out of their connected devices without confusing the heck out of them will win the game. Apple, to some extent, has the advantage right now, as iOS is the only operating system with home automation built right-in. But you still have to program it and set it up. There’s a snippet from an upcoming WWDC session that indicates Apple might be working on ways to help users automate their homes in more powerful and yet easier ways. And that would be awesome. I’ll have an updated commentary on all of this WWDC & HomeKit stuff at the end of this week.
Apple’s "Smart Speaker"
Is it the Siri Speaker? Siri Hi-Fi? SiriSound? SiriBox? SiriBoom? Nope, HomePod.
Is it really a smart speaker? Or is it a fabric-covered, shorter Mac Pro? Sir Jonny definitely had a hand in designing this one, although it’s not super-shiny! It measures about 5.5” in diameter and just under 7 inches tall, with a touch-sensitive control surface at the top and a screen that shows you a “Siri Waveform” but no actual information. So it’s not an “Echo Show Killer”…wow, I’m so disappointed.
Let’s get the main details over with first. You can put your credit cards away because it doesn’t ship until December, it’s $349, comes in black and white, and will launch first in the U.S., U.K. and Australia. But hey, it’s evidently going to be one incredible speaker! And with the new whole-home audio in iOS, you’ll definitely want more than one. There was no on-stage demo and the devices in the “experience” area were essentially display units, so how this thing actually sounds won’t be known until journalists get to have some time with one.
Beyond the obvious capabilities of Siri, Apple really touted the music and high-end audio capabilities of the HomePod. It has the ability to sense a room’s environment and automatically adapt audio playback to create the best listening experience. It does this via custom-designed amplifiers for both the woofer and the array of seven horn-loaded tweeters, and direct and ambient audio beamforming. Otherwise, Apple didn’t reveal how the automatic calibration and all of this high-end audio would work. All of this tech, combined with (perhaps) excellent whole-house audio, would make Apple a serious competitor to Sonos. Sonos is really the only company currently making high-end connected speakers that truly can broadcast simultaneous whole-home audio to multiple devices.
For interacting with the HomePod, Apple would ideally have you use your voice and talk to Siri. A six-microphone array for far-field and room-sensing sits atop the device to better hear you, wherever you might be in the space. There was no mention of how Siri would handle multiple speakers listening to a person asking it questions.
And speaking of questions, you’ll be able to get the usual information that you can expect from most of these digital assistants. But beyond playing music (obviously), controlling HomeKit devices, and getting the news, weather, (some) general knowledge, "hearing" your calendar, setting reminders, timers, etc, you may not be able to do much else. There’s no capability for Siri to request a Lyft or Uber ride for you, for example…even though that’s possible with Siri on iOS devices right now.
Phil Schiller, presenting the HomePod, also discussed that you could inquire about what was playing, who the artist was and that the device had to be a "Musicologist" to be successful. This shows that Apple is combining its deep love of music with high-end audio and data via Siri, which could result in a truly memorable listening experience. Of course, only time will tell how good it really is.
We’ll probably see more details on the capabilities of the HomePod at Apple’s annual "Fall iPhone Event". Until then, some of what HomePod and Siri will be able to do will remain a mystery. I’ll update this and post additional details as they become available. For the moment, aside from its very high-end audio capabilities, the HomePod will be a very expensive, less capable smart speaker compared to Amazon and Google's offerings.
With all of this focus on audio and sound, it’s no wonder they kept the numbering going for iOS and the marketing line was that they were “turning it up to 11.” 🙄