5 min read
I've recently been thinking about the smart-speaker category, musing about Amazon's recently announced Echo Show, and speculating about if and when Apple would get into the game. Earlier this week, I got an answer when Apple announced the HomePod, a smart speaker with voice control powered by Siri. So, has the announcement of HomePod made my choice clear? Will I buy a HomePod, an Echo Show, or another smart-speaker?
Well. Its complicated.
In theory, smart speakers have several appealing features for me:
On the other hand, there are some significant theoretical drawbacks, the most significant of which is security and privacy. Having an internet-connected microphone in my house that is always listening is a bit scary. Is my information safe? Is the company that I am sharing it with a good steward of my data?
HomePod has really muddied the waters for me. I absolutely love the convenience, integrations, features, developer story, and screen on the Echo Show, but the dismal audio quality and significant concerns with privacy and security give me pause. The Echo Show is also not particularly well integrated with Apple's ecosystem, in which I am thoroughly entrenched, though that seems to be changing.
The HomePod has addressed my privacy concern very effectively. Apple made it abundantly clear that they don't send any audio up to their servers until you say "Hey, Siri," and that all information is encrypted in transit, and is anonymized to protect its users. I trust Apple more than I trust Amazon, Google, or pretty much any other major technology and services company. They're interested in selling me their products to improve my life, not in sharing my information with advertisers, or more effectively mining my information to enhance its retail offerings.
Audio quality is also huge focus for Apple with the HomePod. In fact, their marketing site introduces it as "the new sound of home," and spends significant time and effort discussing the internal speakers and adaptive audio features that use its onboard processing to optimize the sound to the room. While there's no way to beat, or even match, a properly tuned multi-speaker audio system, I am betting that Apple's engineers can make the HomePod sound pretty great. Certainly, much better than the Echo. In addition, Apple has built in multi-room audio features that put competitors like Sonos to shame, thanks to tight integration with iOS.
So, HomePod addresses my two main concerns of Smart Speakers with ease! Yet, the HomePod leaves me very conflicted. Why? Because, frankly, its not particularly smart. I was expecting to hear about a total overhaul of Siri, focused on improving accuracy, opening up the platform to developers, and closing the gap with Alexa. Yet, the HomePod has, in many ways, delivered the "same old Siri," which has no developer story to speak of. The only integrations you'll find are those with HomeKit, which thus far hasn't really taken off. Meanwhile, the Alexa Skills library is growing at a massive clip.
Finally, the HomePod clocks in at $349. Ouch. The Echo series ranges from $49 for the Echo Dot, $179 for the full size Echo, and $229 for the Echo Show, which features a touch screen and an integrated HD video camera. Now, Apple can always demand a premium price point, and I have no doubt that the industrial design and engineering quality of the HomePod will put the Echo to shame, but given the feature disparity, I am a bit disappointed in the price.
Given the tradeoffs and price point of the HomePod, I am almost certain to pass on the first generation. If Apple puts significant time and effort into Siri and the developer story, that may change. Early signs from WWDC are that they're interested in opening up HomeKit more, so I'm optimistic. I'm also hopeful that Apple will eventually release a HomePod with a screen with integrated Facetime support, which would be ideal for my kitchen.
Conclusion? Well, I think that the smart speaker category is pretty nascent, and its going to take a few more years to shake out. Amazon has the early lead, and both Google and Apple now have entrants that are playing catch up with varying degrees of success. As of now, I'm sitting 2017 out to see how things change before committing to a platform.
3 min read
I've long been a believer in the power of the open web, but my passion for saving it has been ignited by the IndieWeb movement, as of late. More and more people are discovering their distaste for creepy, ad-driven content silos like Facebook. Today's post by Dave Winer on the evils of Facebook, and John Gruber's hilariously sardonic "Fuck Facebook" reply do an excellent job of encapsulating my own frustrations. That said, there are reasons for hope.
The IndieWeb movement itself has been chipping away at the problem for years, but I've been particularly encouraged over the past few weeks by a few new developments.
First is the successful launch of Manton Reece's Micro.blog project to his Kickstarter backers. I'm a backer myself, as is my employer, and I've had the pleasure of using the platform for a few weeks now. Its early, but the project is already bearing fruit, with a rapid development pace, a vibrant community, and lots of excellent people to follow. Micro.blog is built on the notion of independence and respects your ownership of your data.
Next is the announcement and early success of the JSON Feed format created by Manton and Brent Simmons. JSON Feed is a new format designed for content syndication, similar to RSS and Atom, but based upon the JSON serialization format, which is popular with developers these days for being extremely easy to properly generate and parse. Since its announcement, there's been a flurry of activity around JSON Feed, including outcry about "yet another standard," and those who are upset that JSON Feed was created at all when there are other JSON-based syndication formats in existence. Over all of the noise, though, the adoption rate has been impressive. Many projects have been updated or created to generate and parse JSON Feed, and consumers are starting to adopt the format as well, including Feedbin, News Explorer, NewsBlur, Inoreader, and a few podcast apps. I've even jumped into the fray, creating an initial implementation of JSON Feed for the Known CMS that runs this website, and a second pass that aims to build in additional information through JSON Feed extensions. Regardless of competing standards, shortcomings in the format itself, etc., its undeniable that JSON Feed is generating real, palpable excitement for the open web, and that's undoubtedly a good thing.
Finally, in the midst of all of this, Brent Simmons has announced that he's working on a new, open source feed reader for macOS called Evergreen. Brent was the original creator of NetNewsWire, which was at one time my favorite app. In fact, I created several themes for NetNewsWire back in the day, and was a member of the beta testing and feedback group that Brent set up. Evergreen has a chance to take a fresh look at the problem of consuming feeds, and with JSON Feed and the new capabilities it could support through extensions, I am hoping that Brent takes a crack at solving the bigger picture that I blogged about in March. Imagine an open source app that bundles consumption (through feeds, including JSON Feed) with content creation and interaction (leveraging Micropub, a newly minted W3C recommendation, and Webmention). I'm looking forward to seeing what Brent produces!
So, yes, I lament the state of the web, thanks to walled gardens like Facebook, but I'm optimistic about the future.