Jorge Serna

@jorge.serna

Some answers about the HomePod

The early reviews from the HomePod give us some answers about some of the unknowns of this product, but still keep some issues open and makes privacy a big issue for the device.

Last week I wrote a couple of posts around the open questions about Apple’s HomePod, and how the answers might affect its success. One focused around the music functionality, while the other was around how calling and messaging would work on the smart speaker.

Now several reviews have been released by journalists that were able to test the product for a short time (in their posts they usually talk about around an hour). They have shed some light around some of my questions, but also reinforce new ones.

The questions on Music

All early reviews stress HomePod’s audio quality as simply incredible. This is also being used as an excuse for other limitations in the device. The argument is that Apple is not really trying to compete with Amazon with this product, but that they are going after a different kind of market. I tend to disagree with that view, like some do.

Even if we were to consider the HomePod simply a music device for audiophiles and not a play for the Home Operating System, why are they not supporting other music services like Spotify?

Yes, it has been confirmed that Spotify is possible via AirPlay, and I guess it is only via AirPlay that the HomePod supports the FLAC format, as per their technical specifications, but they are not offering that as the primary experience. In fact, even iTunes Match support is currently unclear, with some reports saying it’s possible and some saying it’s not.

Apple usually gives its own ecosystem preference in its products, but they are also aware that they cannot expect all users to be fully Apple-centric. This means that in the end they provide a way to support third party services in their devices, like Spotify is now integrated with Siri on the iPhone.

I expect Spotify (and in general third party music) support in the future to improve in the HomePod, but currently its a significant limitation.

The questions on Calls

Around communications, some of my initial guesses were confirmed around calls, in particular, the calling behavior is confirmed by TechCrunch:

There’s also calling functionality on-board. It actually needs to be initiated on an iPhone and then handed off to the HomePod. That means the phone needs to be present.

But I still have one question here, that I have not seen answered in any of the early previews. Does this work with *any* iPhone in the local Wifi?

This is a relevant question because, another answer that we got is that the HomePod will only support a single iCloud account. From MacWorld:

When you set up HomePod, like any other Apple device, you’ll be asked to enter your iCloud address. Choose wisely, because this is the main account that the HomePod will be hooked up to. […]. Since HomePod is a household device, there might be some heavy discussions over which person is deemed the “head” of HomePod.

So maybe this also affects the hands-free behavior for calls, and only calls from an iPhone associated to the same iCloud account are allowed. This seems possible, as in many of the posts this behavior is referred to as ‘Handoff’, which is the name Apple uses (along with ‘Continuity’) for the interaction between devices (like iPhone to Mac, or Apple Watch to iPhone). But this is only expected to work between devices that are owned by the same user, and so relies on both devices using the same iCloud account.

If this is the case, the limitation is serious for a household device, since sometimes you cannot control who receives a call. Say the HomePod is using my iCloud account, but some friends call my wife to arrange for a party. She will not be able to put the call through the HomePod from her phone, but the HomePod is her device too.

The questions on Outbound Calls

Another confirmed limitation is the inability to initiate calls from the HomePod. This may seem a small problem, as initiating a call from the phone should be simple, but I actually see this as a missed opportunity for the device becoming indispensable for the elderly.

Should an emergency or an accident occur at home, the phone may be out of reach or the person unable to pick it. But if they are able to say ‘Hey Siri, call my son’ or ‘Hey Siri, call the emergency services’, the value for this device can be huge.

One advantage of Apple’s approach for calling versus the calling functions in Google Home and in the Echo line (both support outbound calls to any US number), is that by using a real phone it could be used to call emergency services, while the other products are not able to do that. To be able to do this with an Amazon speaker you must do an additional investment and buy the Echo Connect, which allows to plug your Echo to your landline phone, so that you can make and receive any regular call with your existing number. Since that solution also uses a real phone, calls to emergency services are also possible with Echo Connect.

The questions on Messages

Another answer, this time from Mashable, is around the support for Messages in the HomePod:

you can use certain Apple services — chiefly Messages, Calendar, and Reminders — with the HomePod. However, if your iPhone leaves the local Wi-Fi network (say, if you left for work), those personalizations would turn themselves off, reactivating when you return.

It does not answer if other notifications are available when the phone is on range, as this would allow to — for instance — answer to WhatsApp received messages (like you can do using an Apple Watch), or even send a WhatsApp message directly via SiriKit. This is a question I expect to answer once the HomePod is finally available.

But anyway, this confirms the same problem I was talking about regarding calls: this is a device for the Home (it’s in the name, right?), so limiting its features for an individual seems problematic for two reasons:

  1. Because it limits its value to the rest of the members of the family, which will not be able to use it for part of its designed value. This can also lead to conflict in deciding who needs more what in separate services: maybe I need Messages and never use Reminders, but my wife uses it a lot and could benefit from that; but a single iCloud account means both go together. (As an aside, from a sociological point of view, the design thinking from Apple looks like it is perpetuating the traditional approach of the “head of the household” figure in a family, which does not fit current society’s expectations and probably does not convey the reality of their customer base)
  2. Because it is a serious privacy problem anyway, as once the main iPhone is at home (with its owner or left behind) it gives access to key information from the owner (their messages, their reminders, their calendar entries) to anyone within reach of the speaker. Anyone can ask for the content of my latest messages, can send a message in my name or check my reminders.

This second point is both confirmed by TechCrunch:

At present, the HomePod isn’t capable of differentiating users based on voice, so things can’t be personalized to that degree. The workaround the company has come up with for dealing with this is only enabling that functionality when the device detects that the mobile device used to set it up is present.

and Mashable

One thing personalization doesn’t do, however, is turn on any way for the HomePod to discern individual voices. Unlike the iPhone, where you can set up Siri to respond only to your voice, the HomePod responds to anyone and everyone within earshot (as I discovered by asking Apple reps about hypothetical Siri commands and hearing various HomePods around the apartment respond to my queries).

Apple has spent a lot of effort in providing security to the iPhone to ensure customers privacy. You can prevent Message notifications to display messages content in the lock screen, and secure the access to all your applications using a PIN, your fingerprint or your face.

That means that you could leave your phone behind without worrying about your privacy. But with a HomePod at home that is no longer the case.

And I don’t think it is a good argument to consider that inside your house you probably are not particularly exposed privacy-wise, because I think that is an individual right that each person can then choose to what extent they are willing to share with their family. I can give my wife my iPhone’s PIN so she can access the information if she needs to, but that is my choice, not Apple’s.

Apple already supports voice-printing in iPhone so that the ‘Hey Siri” function can only be triggered by the phone’s owner. This should have been a functionality for the HomePod too, so that some actions can only be performed by the iCloud account owner.

Let’s hope this is solved in a future version, that should also support multiple iCloud profiles.

More by Jorge Serna

Topics of interest

More Related Stories