2018 is almost over and Apple's smart home is still way behind.
For years I thought Apple was forging its own path in the smart home, that there was a purpose behind its slow-boil approach to working with smart-home partners and integrating Siri voice control features -- that at some point the company's strategy would make sense.
Sure, to some extent it does make sense. If you're an Apple loyalist, the pathway is clear: You probably already have Apple Music, you're likely going to buy a HomePod smart speaker and you'll look for lights, locks, thermostats and other smart home gadgets that work with Apple HomeKit. You'll overlook Apple's other limitations because the platform works well enough.
And who knows what potential innovations await with the hiring of Google alum John Giannandrea, now Apple's chief of machine learning and AI strategy.
But there are some serious, lingering limitations with HomeKit, Siri and Apple's overall approach to smart home hardware that should have been addressed by now. Alexa and Google Assistant continue to move forward while Apple's platform lags far behind. Let's take a look at the current state of the Apple smart home and discuss what we'd like to see from it next year.
The HomePod is Apple's only piece of smart home hardware to date, introduced in early 2018. (You can make a case for the Apple TV counting as well since it works with Airplay 2, but it's more smart-home-adjacent than smart-home-exclusive.) Fortunately, the HomePod is a great speaker, delivering excellent sound quality in a relatively compact package. Pair two HomePods together for stereo sound in the same room -- or put them in different rooms to enable multiroom audio (these come via Airplay 2).
It's a solid device. But Amazon and Google have many more smart speaker options. There's even a limited selection of third-party devices that work with Alexa and Google Assistant. The Facebook Portal and Portal Plus work with Alexa and so does the Sonos One. Google Assistant is built into the JBL Link View and the Lenovo Smart Display, among others.
At $349 each, the HomePod smart speaker is pricey. Where's the more affordable HomePod? Rumors of a "HomePod Mini" have been discussed for months, but we have yet to see it. There's no Siri-enabled HomeKit smart display, either.
Both stereo pairing and multiroom audio were added to the HomePod in May, a few months after the smart speaker's initial product launch.
A few other HomePod updates have trickled in, including calling, searching for a song by its lyrics and setting multiple timers. The additions have helped keep Siri and the HomePod somewhat competitive, but Apple's voice assistant still struggles to keep up with Alexa and Google Assistant.
Amazon and Google have made significant progress with natural language, making Alexa and Google Assistant conversational. Use the Google Assistant on the Google Home Hub to cook a meal and it will walk you through the steps, tutorial-style. Amazon smart speakers now offer a "whisper mode" -- it sounds kind of creepy, but it means you can use your Alexa speaker during your kid's nap time. These nuances make Alexa and Google Assistant more appealing and more natural to use in a variety of scenarios. Apple just isn't there yet.
Apple has make some strides as far as opening up its platform. Manufacturers no longer need to stick an MFi hardware chip in every HomeKit-enabled device like they used to. Apple has also announced a software developer kit making it easier for developers to partner with Apple on HomeKit projects.
At the same time, Apple lags way behind Amazon and Google Assistant when it comes to third-party smart-home partners. It has more than it used to, but it's nowhere near catching up with Amazon, which reached 50,000 Alexa skills back in September according to Voicebot.AI.
I know, I know. Apple and "open platform" don't necessarily go together, but there are just two things I want to see from Apple that would make a big difference in the smart home:
Apple's Home app is where you go on your iOS phone or tablet to add and make adjustments to your HomeKit, Siri-enabled smart devices. It's a decent enough app and Apple added it to MacOS Mojave in 2018, so you can view, manage and control your smart home products straight from your Mac.
The HomePod currently only works natively with Apple Music. You can use Airplay 2 to play audio from third parties on the HomePod, but they don't work seamlessly via Siri. Apple should make the HomePod compatible with Spotify at the very least. Amazon now works with Apple Music, as well as Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Prime Music, Amazon Music Unlimited, iHeartRadio, TuneIn and SiriusXM.
Given the success of Alexa and Google Assistant, why isn't Apple doing more with Siri, HomeKit and the HomePod? There are so many different things they could address to stay more competitive. Where's the HomePod that's actually affordable? Why isn't there an Apple smart display? When will Siri be able to answer more questions (and better)? The list goes on and on.
We'll continue to keep an eye on things here, as always, and hope that Giannandrea ushers in a new age for the Apple smart home. Prove us wrong, Apple.
Apple declined CNET's request for comment.
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