Bob Fairbairn

I sent my HomePods back!

I have __never__ sent a product back to Apple. This decision was predicated on several things.

  1. The audio quality is “interesting”,… Apple has created a sound that I describe as uncomfortable. Too much bottom, not enough detail, not enough middle.
  2. The integration with Apple services is very weak and it does not work in a multiple person household.
  3. Apple Music works well and I cannot fault it for what it is. The integration with Homepod is very good. I do not need Apple Music except for this.
  4. The controls and configuration of HomePod in the Apple Home App is just plain odd. It kind of works but needs a LOT of UI work.
  5. The AI domains are very limited on the HomePod rendering it neutered and less than useful.
  6. Little things are annoying such as the inability to control Alarm volume or type. The whole timer and alarm controls, weird.
  7. Yes I know that almost all of this is software but I have less patience than I used to.
  8. I have a VERY GOOD system to listen to and I do not need the HomePod for “performance listening”

So a bit more narrative is needed here. First on home automation. I have rather simple needs that HomePod did not enhance. I have shared calendars and shared task lists that it could not address or manage well. I have simple lighting automation that only requires occasional intervention and the is very little need for additional features that the HomePod might bring.

I do not want to be overly critical about the audio quality of the HomePod. In my office, the bedroom and when you are a bit further away from it the sound is actually very very good. I have a long term relationship with high quality audio reproduction and Apple has really done a good job on this thing. It does stuff that almost any other all-in-one audio component does not do; room correction, streaming, and more. For a whole lot of Apple’s target market this is a great 1.0 product.

A lot of energy went into this thing. A single audio component that can play streaming music at this reproduction quality and cost is a good value proposition. IF YOU ARE IN THE APPLE ECOSYSTEM. I would like to add an additional caveat that you are a single person household. This is almost frictionless for delivering music.

I have seen a lot of talk on the tech-blogs about use cases that they think the HomePod can fill including using the HomePod with your TV. I do not see that as valuable and it really speaks to the fact that most modern TVs have TERRIBLE audio. Some sort of sound bar system would be a better value. Now Apple could do the Dolby decoding and stereo pairs and surround simulation with all that computing power. But without an optical input from the TV the application to this modality is weak.

Siri “AI” and voice control

I am all in on Apple computing products. I use an iMac for my main computer, Mac Laptops, iPad, iPhone, Watch, Apple TV, and more.. The way the systems work hand in hand and the overall systems design is a head and shoulders above just about anything else. When Apple bought Siri a lot of us were excited to have Apple work through the privacy and availability. And the progress on Siri has been laudable. Apple is not moving fast enough for the tech press and they talk and write a lot about what Siri can do. The voice response system on the HomePod is nothing short of amazing. The music can be blaring away and I can talk in a quiet voice and it hears me just fine. The issue is what it can do with what it hears. The press is brutal in it’s evaluation of the HomePod on this functionality. If I ask it to play the Beatles it will do that. Now if you have 10 variants of something from the Grateful Dead I am pretty sure you will run into issues.

This whole thing is a very powerful integration of Computers and Audio. This is one implementation of the future of Voice First interaction technology. More of this will be in our future. Organizing and delivering the right track out of 40 million is a daunting task. This is a good start.

Finally some notes on Information Security

I assume that many who read this are walking around with some sort of mobile device on their pocket all the time. So we are all carrying around a potential “wireless bug”. Introducing another device into our homes that has a microphone and an internet connection does not necessarily increase our security risk, although it has a possibility higher potential to be attacked and compromised.

So if you have a networked device with a microphone it is a potential bug. The switch on top of an Amazon echo is a software driven push button that tells the computer to turn on the red light and turn off the microphone system in some manner. The HomePod has a voice command to turn off listening which is again software. The HomePod has no visual indication that the device is in a not-listening state. As these are software switches it is possible that they could be compromised. I would think that with Apple the risk might be lower as they are very vocal about their controls in this space.

Now the real meat of the problem is in intent. Apple intends the voice to control and input data. They appear to have no incentive to monetize your voice or keep data around. Their differential privacy system appears to be robust.

Amazon sells the Echo devices to keep you in their system and to keep you buying from them. Their system does use cloud based technologies and the voice information in one form or another is available to them. You can see on their App or on the website the voice information about what you asked or told the device. There may be more exposure here but it is hard to validate.

Google has a different motivation in this. They want you to GIVE them data about you that they can use to sell to advertisers to target you. Now they do that by inference but it does feel more intrusive or creepy to see the ads hitting you after a search. The knowledge about YOU is the product that Google sells to their customers.

Microsoft is a new player to this game and their Cortana software is now appearing in devices like the HomePod. I have no experience with this hardware or how Microsoft implements their software stack. I am suspect of their motivations. Windows 10 bothers me a lot! I find their security statements to be cryptic.

In the end I jumped too fast assuming that Apple did what I want them do to and I was disappointed.

I am back to using the Amazon Echo devices in my home. They provide a service that I currently want including voice activated music playback although not at the quality level of the HomePod. The Echo devices are “just good enough” to listen to. AKA “radio”

—RJF

Well that is a bout 1300 words, sorry not quite a “micro” blog post.