Next week, Apple will hold its annual developer conference, WWDC. Along with new computing hardware and software features, Apple last year introduced HomePod, the company’s smart speaker with Siri built in.
But that device was delayed and generally met with lackluster reviews if you were looking for a capable digital assistant on par with Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home products. And HomeKit was effectively a no-show at the WWDC keynote in 2017, although there was one session for developers specific to HomeKit changes such as event triggers, recurrence and a few other new framework options.
Will the event be any different this year? I certainly hope so but I’m keeping my expectations in check.
To be fair, Siri did get some nice upgrades for the masses last year: Language translation, on device learning for apps you use often, and synchronization across devices so that you’d have “one Siri”.
Except there are really two Siris right now: The one on iOS and Mac that has a bunch of functionality and the one on HomePod that’s relatively lacking. In fact it was only earlier this week that Siri on HomePod gained access to your calendar.
Both Siris still lag behind competitors when it comes to knowledge as well. I thought the HomePod release would address this to make the device more compelling but that didn’t happen. This past April, however, Apple poached John Giannandrea from Google where he was head of search and AI. It’s not likely that Giannandrea has had enough time to add significant smarts to Siri just yet, but that bodes well for the future of Apple’s voice assistant.
It’s also possible that Apple previews some Siri improvements next week, with the expectation of delivering them later in the year. That would be ideal since there’s talk of Siri functionality appearing in Beats headphones soon, which provides another option if you don’t want the Apple AirPods that already support Siri.
As far as HomeKit, my biggest issue is that it relies solely on Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for smart home devices. In order to expand the number of available devices for HomeKit users, I hope Apple has plans to incorporate Z-Wave or Zigbee support. Even better would be both. Not only would that allow for longer wireless range between HomeKit devices (at least when it comes to Bluetooth) but it would also help with battery life of smart home accessories.
And I don’t think it would be difficult for Apple to do for two reasons.
First, Apple could manage the security of these devices through its HomeKit hubs, which are currently the Apple TV, iPad and HomePod. This would make it easier and possibly cheaper for HomeKit device makers to adhere to Apple Mfi certification process to get the “Works with HomeKit” logo on their product.
Second, Apple could add Zigbee and/or Z-Wave radios to new iterations of its home hub products. No, I wouldn’t expect those to be inside a new iPad, but to be honest, I don’t think a tablet makes for the best hub anyway. Currently, your iPad can only act as a HomeKit hub if it’s plugged in. And if you take that iPad out of your home, it’s not capable of being a hub while you’re away.
Instead, I’d like to see Apple add these additional radios to new Apple TV and HomePod products. After all, they’re always home and very likely always plugged in. Apple last updated its TV product in September so it may be early for a refresh. Although HomePod launched earlier this year, there’s already talk about a lower-cost model, so there’s an opportunity for the addition of Z-Wave and Zigbee in that too. It may even help boost HomePod sales if these radios were added because there would be a wider range of smart home devices that would work in an HomePod house.
Apple is broadcasting the WWDC keynote live on June 4 at 10am PT, so you can watch along and see if either Siri or HomeKit get these or other improvements. Even if Apple doesn’t go in the direction I’m hoping for these products, I’d like to see some more momentum here because right now, it appears that Amazon, Google and others are moving faster in the smart home than Apple.