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HomePod WWDC Wish List: Beta program, new audio sources, Echo features

WWDC kicks off on Monday where we could learn about major new HomePod features for the first time. Apple is shipping features today that it promised for HomePod during its unveiling a year ago — AirPlay 2 and stereo support — and that leaves room for next week to be all about the future of HomePod.

The potential for improvement in all areas beyond quality music playback is strong…

HomePod OS 11.4

iOS 11.4 and tvOS 11.4 have been in developer and public beta for several weeks now and are officially coming today. These software updates include support for AirPlay 2 and have hinted at unreleased HomePod features being included that Apple has now confirmed are coming.

These include stereo pairing for using two HomePods together in a left + right configuration and Calendar support which is a basic Siri skill but lacking on HomePod. It’s possible Apple will also make AirPort Express-connected speakers work with AirPlay 2, but discontinuing the AirPort lineup adds uncertainty.

While all of these features have been hinted at in beta versions of iOS, they’re all untested for now without matching updates to HomePod and AirPort Express. Later today we can finally take them for a spin.

HomePod Beta

Which brings me to my first request after those predictions: a HomePod beta program. Apple has a developer beta program for iOS, macOS, watchOS, and tvOS because developers need to test apps with unreleased software, but HomePod doesn’t have a developer beta program yet.

There aren’t exactly apps that can be tested on HomePod, just SiriKit domains, but running a public release version of HomePod software with a developer beta version of iOS can cause compatibility issues since HomePod relies on an iOS device on the same Wi-Fi network for some features.

As a plus, offering a developer and public beta would allow unreleased HomePod features to be tested with more users (who at this point are early adopters). Feedback from developer and public beta testing helps features become more solid before release.

HomePod OS 12

It feels odd to expect or even request new features for HomePod given its public life so far: previewed a year ago, release promised in December, delayed through mid-February, and released without two big features until today.

But Siri on HomePod lacks a lot of features that Siri on iPhone has — basic features! — and there are features you would expect a smart music speaker to gain independent of iPhone. WWDC 2018 is the first opportunity for Apple to set the pace for improvements.

With that in mind, here are a few features that I think are reasonable to request HomePod learn over the next year:

  • Podcast sync fix: HomePod can play podcast episodes just like iOS, tvOS, and iTunes, but I almost never use the feature now because playback sync is really bad. The worst experience is being 40 minutes into an episode on iPhone, HomePod starting the episode from the beginning, and that place taking over on iPhone…
  • iBooks audiobook streaming: HomePod supports streaming Apple Music and Apple Podcasts, and iBooks audiobooks streaming needs to join that list (as long as the sync works!). I already enjoy AirPlaying audiobooks from iPhone to HomePod. Adding native support controlled by Siri is a natural fit — and one that would go well with a rumored overhaul of iBooks to Apple Books.
  • More radio stations: Apple Music supports a number of streaming radio stations including NPR and state public radio, ESPN, CBS News, and a few more, but radio station streaming is generally limited to a select number of partners. Apple could remedy this by adding more stations to Apple Music or plugging in a service like TuneIn or iHeartRadio that already has a database of streaming stations.

  • Music automation: HomePod and other AirPlay 2 speakers are HomeKit accessories and appear in Apple’s Home app, but there isn’t much opportunity for music automation today. You can tell HomePod “Good night” and have your lights turn off, ceiling fan turn on, and blinds close through HomeKit, and adding an Apple Music station or playlist for playback to that scene feels like the next natural step.
  • Borrow from Alexa: It’s no secret that Amazon Echo and Google Home have features that make HomePod look seriously behind. I have Amazon Echo Dots deployed throughout my house for smart home control in every room ($30-$50/room is more affordable than $350/room) which gives me the opportunity to test Echo-specific features. There are a few that my family uses regularly and finds useful that I would love to see HomePod tackle:
    • Drop-In: This lets you use the speaker as a room-to-room intercom system
    • Announce: This lets you send a voice message from one speaker to every speaker in the house
    • Daily Briefing: This lets you hear a personalized mix of news upon request. HomePod sort of has a version of this with podcast support and specific podcasts for news, sports, tech, and business, but they’re currently all separate commands including weather.
  • Music for alarms: This one is really basic. You can set a song as your alarm tone on iPhone. You can set alarms on HomePod. But you can’t set songs as alarm tones on HomePod, the music speaker. Ideally, this would work with playlists and stations too.

Finally, there’s the handful of features that Siri on HomePod needs to catch up with Siri on HomePod like the ability to place a call. You can transfer a call to HomePod, but you can’t have Siri place that call for you. In general, HomePod responds far too often by saying that it can’t do that on HomePod when asked to do tasks that iPhone can.

If we get through WWDC 2018 and Apple doesn’t demonstrate setting multiple labeled timers with Siri (or at least including it on a slide deck of features), I think a lot of people will accept that HomePod isn’t a viable option to Amazon Echo and Google Home. Here’s to also hoping for third-party audio intents for Siri so customers can use Overcast and Spotify with HomePod.

AirPlay 2 Speakers

The promise of AirPlay 2 is almost here, and that’s big for whole home audio. Prior to AirPlay 2, the easiest way to play Apple Music across several rooms from iOS was to buy a bunch of Sonos speakers and control them from the Sonos app.

With AirPlay 2, you can tell Siri to play music in specific rooms or every room and HomePod and Apple TV-connected speakers can do that. Speaking of Sonos, their latest speakers will also work with AirPlay 2, and other speaker makers have promised AirPlay 2 speakers in the future. Perhaps we’ll see the Beats take soon as promised.

Have your own HomePod feature requests? Let us know in the comments! You can also catch up on our watchOS 5 and tvOS 12 wish lists below, and stay tuned this week for more coverage leading up to WWDC 2018 on Monday:

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Avatar for Zac Hall Zac Hall

Zac covers Apple news for 9to5Mac and hosts the 9to5Mac Happy Hour and 9to5Mac Watch Time podcasts.