Apple tends not to be a forerunner when it comes to new technologies, which often leads to the popular phenomenon of pundits declaring that the company “must” make this or that product. But the real problem when it comes to Apple’s devices is that it often seems like the company is dipping its toe in the waters of a product category…then quickly retreating feeling the icy waters.
Perhaps the best example of recent years is the HomePod. Smart speakers were a category that Apple entered long after other companies like Amazon and Google rushed into the market, but this turned out to be a case where not only did Apple’s entry n didn’t dominate – the original HomePod was discontinued three years after its first release, replaced by the cheaper HomePod mini. But the category itself has proven both popular and yet, in some high-profile cases, unprofitable.
Still, the HomePod mini’s second anniversary has passed without any updates to the device, which makes me worry about its future. So I’m here to make the case for the smart speaker: Not only do I hope Apple doesn’t send the HomePod mini to an upstate farm like its big brother, but I’d love to see Apple invest After in the category. Specifically, I’d like to see Apple ship a HomePod with a display.
We have a HomePod mini in our kitchen, where it’s mostly used as a music player, timer, smart home controller, and a way to add things to our grocery list. It does all of those things quite well, though Siri’s reliability has often been iffy at best.
But sometimes there’s no substitute for a visual interface, whether it’s the ability to see all running timers or getting visible information like the weather forecast or upcoming events on our family calendar. Both Amazon and Google have delivered smart speakers with screens that prove the concept’s usefulness.
Rumor has it that Apple has been working on a prototype HomePod with a display, which would marry an iPad with a HomePod, creating a Frankenstein device that would hopefully be the best of both worlds. Apple is obviously unrivaled when it comes to touchscreen devices, and while the result doesn’t have to be as functional as an iPad, it does open up a lot of possibilities when it comes to improving the usefulness of this ambient computing device.
Speaking of screen, another useful feature that such a device could offer would be digital photo frame capability. Recently my wife mentioned that she would like to have a digital picture frame for her desk to rotate pictures of our four month old. But thinking about it, I realized there was no great options in this category for Apple ecosystem users.
For example, in my office I have an original Google Nest Hub, a smart speaker with a small screen on it. Since I don’t usually use Google Assistant, I left the microphone muted and instead turned it into a digital photo frame pulled from a Google Drive folder of our wedding photos. It works pretty well, but it’s also a static set of images that doesn’t change. (It helped our wedding photographer to share the photos with us on Google Drive in the first place, so I didn’t really have to do anything else.)
In our child’s case, we take new photos all the time, which we keep in an iCloud shared photo library. But there is, to my knowledge, no digital photo frame on the market that can simply pull directly from iCloud Photos, adding new images to the rotation as they are added. Our only real option would be to set up an old iPad, which isn’t exactly an ideal use case.
But a standalone device like a HomePod with a screen could be ideal for this scenario, allowing you to simply log into your iCloud account and then pull specified images, even taking advantage of some of the same machine learning features as Apple uses to display featured photos. or create memories. Apple has done a lot of work to display your photos and help you remember and enjoy them. it’s surprising to me that it doesn’t have a way to easily display them on your desktop.
Increase the ambiance
But if there’s a reason why Apple might choose not to spend time and money improving the HomePod, it may conflict with what seems to be another big initiative within the company right now: augmented reality.
It’s clear that Apple is poised for a big AR push in the next year or two, and the eventual evolution of this technology falls broadly into the same category as the HomePod: ambient computing which is around you at all times, rather than requiring you to be chained to a device. It’s not hard to imagine Apple envisioning a future where many of the same HomePod features are achieved through a wearable device; say, using Siri on your AirPods, or seeing information on some sort of heads-up display.
That said, I think the HomePod model still has a lot of advantages, perhaps most importantly that it’s a device that can easily be controlled by multiple users, unlike most other Apple products, who provide, at best, lip service to this use case. I’m watching you, Apple TV.
The HomePod isn’t a stunner, but it’s the solid foundation of one. Iterating and improving is the way Apple rolls around, but the basis of that – the very first thing that needs to happen – is for Apple to decide that it is a product that deserves to be improved.
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