Google’s smart home ecosystem is a complete mess

Google’s smart home ecosystem is a complete mess:

While Google might argue its new system will be good for users in the long run, the fact remains that customers spent money on a product, and Google is taking that product out of customers’ hands and replacing it with something different. In effect, Google just unplugged many of its users’ smart homes, all while asking them to kindly move into a new, Google Assistant-branded tenement. In the long run, Google assures us, things will get better. Its track record with killing products doesn’t inspire confidence.

I found myself nodding my head a ton while reading this article. I’m moving to Alexa/Sonos over the next few months.

Hey, Siri (and minimum wage contractors) … 

From: Siri records fights, doctor’s appointments, and sex (and contractors hear it) | Ars Technica

These cases bring up a series of questions. What can Apple and its colleagues do to better protect user privacy as they develop their voice systems? Should users be notified when their recordings are reviewed? What can be done to reduce or eliminate the accidental activations? How should the companies handle the accidental information that its contractors overhear? Who is responsible when dangerous or illegal activity is recorded and discovered, all by accident?

Now it looks like your Siri voice recordings can be heard by contractors roughly 1% of the time.

I think my issue with all of this is that it’s not opt-in other than the “by using this software you agree to …” BS all tech companies shove down our throat. I think one solution to this problem would be to allow users to opt-in to have humans review your recordings as long as they are properly anonymized. There’s still a chance an accidental wake word could trigger some of the scenarios mentioned in the article but at least give folks the ability to make decisions about how much they want to contribute to making these voice assistants better.

I’ve turned off the “raise to talk to Siri” on my watch long ago but we do have Google Home devices in our house and “Hey Siri” is still activated on my phone. I could shut off the wake word functionality on my phone but I’m not even sure you can do that with the Google Homes. I’ll be honest, I’m starting to lean toward yanking most of the voice assistant stuff out of my house in favor of dumb speakers hooked up to Chromecasts or maybe just going full Sonos (although that has it’s own privacy issues).

Update: Looks like Apple is halting the program for now and will be adding a way to disable this in the future. Good for them.

Revisiting the iconography of Apple Maps – Mercury Intermedia – Medium

I just got done reading Revisiting the iconography of Apple Maps and it scratched every design nerd itch I could ask for. For example, here’s a breakdown of the color grouping changes over time in the app’s icons:

There’s a ton more like this and it’s really worth checking out. I’m not an Apple Maps user all the time but I do think it’s the best looking and cleanest solution out there.

 

Rebuilding the blogging muscle

It’s been a long time since I wrote anywhere other than in my Day One journal (which I do nearly daily at this point – I love the type of things I notice and jot down when it’s mostly for an audience of one). I’ve mostly avoided social media over the past year or two as well. I still lurk but I just don’t feel like there’s much to say on Twitter or Facebook. Both have become cesspools for the most part. I’ll still post on Instagram from time to time, but that’s about it. Blogging can be a very similar form of navel-gazing but I must admit that I enjoy the act of trying to getting thoughts down in a way that folks might want to read. So I’m going to try to get back into the habit again.

It’s been nearly 18 months since I last committed to posting more frequently so any promise should realistically be met with some skepticism. I’ve become super interested in organizational health and team-building since moving to my current job at SalesLoft nearly 4 years ago and I think this could be a good place to start putting down some of those thoughts that are a bit out of the scope of typical social media. It’s also been a while since I ranted about my trifecta of topics: Android, Apple and streaming music, so expect some of that as well.

In any event, I don’t promise much but I hope to not fall off the map like last time, either.

The HomePod is the point of no return for Apple fans

The HomePod is the point of no return for Apple fans

Apple’s HomePod is, by all accounts, a superb speaker that sets a new benchmark for sound quality in its size and price class. But it is also brazenly hostile to any hardware or service not made by Apple. If you decide to buy one, do so with the full awareness of how deeply ensconced inside the Apple bubble you will be.

 Super valid points in this article. I can’t say I’ll be buying a HomePod until Siri is better and the potential integration points are better. I mentioned this a while back, but I find it harder and harder to lock myself in to any single vendor, but Apple is the worst about this by far.

HomePod questions

Apple has been a little late getting their HomePods out to consumers, but it looks like 2/9 is the big day. In short, it looks like these 7 inch tall speakers are Apple’s take on the smart speaker, but with a heavy focus on the speaker part and less on the assistant side. It has a lot of the basics (Apple Music support and basic Siri smarts along with HomeKit integration) but is way more concerned with being a kick ass speaker system for your home.

I’m pretty solidly entrenched in the Google Home / Chromecast Audio ecosystem so I don’t think I’m their ideal customer at this time. However, I am interested as I’d like to upgrade eventually to Sonos or something similar and both simplify our setup and also add more options for services like Apple Music.

Most early reviews have backed up the initial claims that the HomePod sounds fantastic and runs circles around the competition, but I am concerned only the true Apple faithful will pull the trigger on these day one.

The price doesn’t bother me, really. Based on the reviews I have seen it appears one of these can fill up most any room. If you bought a few of these you’d be able to easily provide coverage for a floor of most homes. The thing that does bother me is most of the technical side of things.

I worry that Apple won’t open this thing up at all, and won’t ever add SiriKit integration for competing services to latch on to. Apple Music is fine and it’s getting better for sure, but I’m a Spotify person and would hate to constrict my options just for better sounding speakers than what Google or Amazon offer.  Also, the  more that I read about AirPlay 2, the less excited I get. I still feel that Google nailed it with their approach to Casting, which effectively is passing a stream URL to the devices and letting them handle it from there. Airplay 2 still requires proximity, it just enables multi room audio and performs better than v1. Still, not a major leap forward that I was expecting. Oh, and it won’t even be in the first software version with shipping units. This won’t matter for single HomePod owners who use Apple Music but could be a deal breaker for others.

There’s lots of other small questions about how Siri will work, future plans for multi user support and what sort of new SiriKit stuff in iOS 12 might allow (Lyft ride hailing, music and podcasts etc). For now though this seems like a great speaker that creates more questions than it answers at this time. I can’t wait to see how this changes the conversation about these smart speakers and asks companies to think more about the quality of sound and not just the smarts under the hood. In the medium term I have my eyes on the HomePod and the Sonos One as solutions to get great sound around the house, so I’m rooting for Apple to get this right.

Is this thing on?

It’s been nearly a year since I last wrote in here but more than anything this post is about accountability.

One of my goals for 2018 is to mess around on social media less and instead read and write more. Not everything I’ll write will be public but I’d like to start posting a couple of times a month at the very least, with a goal of once a week. Stay tuned.

Google Home & Pixel XL

About 6 months ago, Google announced a slew of consumer-grade products geared squarely at Apple and Amazon. At the event, they presented the Home, the Pixel, and Google WiFi and they all caught my eye for different reasons. I’m intrigued by the concept of mesh networking rather than throwing a router in one corner of the house, I’ve also had my eye on the connected home being controlled by voice, and I’ve been waiting for a truly premium heir to the Nexus line of phones to see if it was really worth making the switch (again).  I alluded to this in a recent post about my slow breakup with the Apple ecosystem, but I’ve been slowly making purchasing decisions based on what works best for me and my family, not what works best just with Apple stuff. A few examples of this is Todoist instead of OmniFocus, Spotify instead of Apple Music, Roku Streaming Sticks instead of Apple TV, and so on. At this point I’m heavily invested in Apple hardware (MacBook Pro, iPhone, Apple Watch) but from an ecosystem angle I’m pretty well spread out amongst a number of services. So, what was it like to try out Google’s latest and greatest?

Google Home

I’ve been interested in a connected home setup for some time but wasn’t sold on the Amazon Echo given the price point and lack of integration with the way I listen to music at home – we have a number of Chromecast Audios hooked up to speakers throughout the home as well as Chromecasts on our TVs. When the demo of the Google Home was shown at the 2016 I/O, (although some of the functionality isn’t baked in yet) I was definitely interested if the price was right. When they were announced at $129 each, that was all I needed to know.

I immediately bought 2 Homes – one for our kitchen and one for our bedroom. We use these things constantly for tasks as simple as setting timers and controlling our Nest thermostats but also for things like controlling multi-room audio, getting general trivia and weather from the web, and turning lights on and off. The voice recognition works very well, even when music or TV audio are playing, and it gets my commands right a vast majority of the time. We’ve gotten into the habit of using it pretty frequently when in the kitchen or getting ready for work. It’s really been a joy to use, and the capabilities are improving every week.

That said, it’s got a long way to go before it can truly challenge the Echo on the number of features it has. But for me, I wanted something that looked good in our house and has the potential of being smarter over time with a company like Google backing it. The thing that really sold me was the integration with Chromecasts – instead of buying a Sonos system in our house we saved $2k by just hooking up existing speakers to Chromecasts. I also play a lot of podcasts throughout the house, which I love do to on the weekends. It’s been freeing to have the ability to have smart home products from multiple vendors that all work together. Sometimes it’s not as easy as just logging into your iCloud account, but you have more choices.

A few things I hope make their way into the Home is the ability to queue music better, multi account functionality (so my wife and I could each do Google account specific stuff), the ability to send messages, and a way to have voice feedback set to one level and media set to another. If you’re looking to get into voice controlled assistants or even just want something to play music on, this is a great option at $129.

Google Pixel XL

I also took the plunge on a 128gb Pixel XL. I had 14 days to return it, so I figured I’d give it an honest look to see if the battery life, camera, OS features and build quality made it worth it to switch.

The short answer is that the Google Pixel XL better than my iPhone 6s Plus in nearly every measurable way. Now I know that isn’t the fairest comparison as the 6s Plus was released in September 2015 and the Pixel XL shipped last November but the only real unfair comparison there would be camera quality and performance. That said, I’m floored with how great Android 7.0 is now compared to iOS 10 and how fantastic the camera is on the Pixel.

The longer answer is a bit more complicated.

Build and screen quality of the Pixel were on par with the iPhone – it’s nothing flashy, with similar bezels to the current Apple offerings, but it’s fine. I don’t mind the fingerprint sensor being on the back, but I do think it’s faster for me to have it on the front. It can be annoying to have to unlock with your PIN when your phone is laying flat on the desk for sure, but it’s not the end of the world. The saving grace for this difference is that Android lets you set trusted unlock locations and connections so you aren’t forced to use the fingerprint sensor constantly. Android has a concept of a “Smart Lock” that allows you to set trusted locations, devices, voices and more to allow you to not require a pin or fingerprint if you’re paired to your car’s Bluetooth, or you’re at home.

The actual feel of the hardware is great, to the point where I don’t need a case. Battery life is a tough one – the standby time of the Pixel was fantastic compared to my current phone but was slightly worse on days where I’d be heavily using the screen. I never struggled to get through the day but I was constantly in the 30% range by the end of the day, compared to maybe 40–50% range with my 6s Plus. Fast charging makes up for any issues here though, as a good 20–30 minutes can get you from 30% to 85% easily. Knowing that’s an option removes any possible battery anxiety.

The camera is the best phone camera I’ve ever used, and the ‘smart burst’ functionality of the phone means that you always get a really good shot when dealing with quick moving targets like a kid or two. I already use Google Photos as a backup for my photo library, so getting free ‘for life’ storage for anything shot from the Pixel XL is something Apple should be doing for iPhones.

On the software side, I firmly believe that Android is now better than iOS for my needs. The way notifications work and are grouped, the organization of the home screens, the default keyboard and overall UX make my time on my phone much more pleasurable. Things have evolved to the point where visually I like the look and feel of Android as well from a color, animation and layout perspective. Little things add up, too. Persistent notifications for chat conversations and media playback mean it’s very easy to switch contexts. After using Android for a few weeks, it feels like everything in iOS takes a few extra taps to accomplish. The app ecosystem really isn’t a problem anymore, either. There are a few apps here and there that I’ll miss from iOS (Day One, Reeder, Fantastical and Pennies come to mind) but it’s not a deal breaker like it was for me 3 years ago.

Other than the above mentioned apps above, the biggest things I missed from iOS was a good messaging solution (iMessage is so amazing and I have no idea why Google can’t find a way to merge Allo, Hangouts and SMS into a unified ‘thing’) and iCloud photo sharing (but I could still do this from my computer so no huge loss). The biggest gripes I had with Android and the Pixel mostly related to missing my watch being integrated (time to start shopping for an Android Wear device!), Average battery life under heavy use, having to use Pushbullet to get text notifications on my work computer (which is a great service, just not as nice as a native app like Messages on the Mac), and the location/volume of the one speaker on the bottom. Lift to wake also wasn’t super reliable in my experience, which is amazing on iOS.

Having a phone with a voice assistant that responds well, is more open (creating tasks in Todoist was dead simple), and gives good contextual answers is really a game changer. I found myself using voice for a ton in the past few months because of the Google Home and always disappointed by Siri. Having a seamless system that truly works everywhere is fantastic.

As an aside, not having notifications on my wrists for messages and other important apps was a big negative. Next time I go for an Android device I’ll have to get a smart watch as well.

As the 2 weeks came to a close I started thinking hard about if this phone or any phone is worth the $4–500 I’d have to spend to buy it (after selling my current iPhone to recoup some costs). I think that answer is no, but I am sad to move back to iOS and return the Pixel XL. Other than some battery gripes it’s really better in every way. So, in the short term I’m happy enough with my iPhone 6s Plus and iOS in general to not invest $900 on a new phone with new hardware less than 6 months out. If I were buying a new phone today I’d get the Pixel XL and I can recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone looking for a new phone. I’m going to have an eye on Google I/O, WWDC and the fall hardware announcements from each company with an even sharper eye than ever before. If I were a betting man, when it comes time to replace my current iPhone I’ll be buying the Pixel XL 2 or whatever it’s called unless Apple really wows me with their hardware and software. The things Apple needs to do with iOS 11 and the next iPhone aren’t out of reach, but I’m not super confident they’ll deliver.

At a higher level, it’s fascinating to me how well Google has gotten at walking and chewing gum. I’ve been using more and more of their services and with most of their hardware offerings looking so good, it’s not too hard to imagine a scenario where the only Apple products I own in a year will be my 3 year old MacBook Pro.

Trumped

What just happened?

We just elected a man who ran a campaign based on fear, hate, racism and misogyny. Devoid of any content other than a few catch phrases and intellectually too lazy to learn more about the issues, Donald Trump is going to be our president in 2 short months.

I’m terrified, and at a loss in a way that I haven’t felt in quite some time. I didn’t sleep a lot last night.

This isn’t Democrats v Republicans – if Romney or McCain had won in previous elections, I had full faith in their ability to govern. I would have strongly disagreed with some of their decisions, but my faith in those men, in our nation, and who we are as a people would not have been shaken. They are both ultimately decent men.

Trump is not a decent man.

So much about what makes our country strong, free and diverse is at risk if Trump gets his way:

  • Climate change progress, gone
  • LGBT equality, at risk
  • A woman’s right to choose, gone
  • Civil liberties, at risk
  • Freedom of the press, at serious risk
  • 50+ year alliances around the world could be dismantled
  • The end of real discussions on demilitarization of our police forces
  • A fragile but long recovery from the 2008 collapse will probably evaporate as well

That doesn’t even take into consideration that he’s a vindictive, childish bully that now will have access to the largest nuclear arsenal in the world.

What I’m struggling with the most right now is a path forward that is constructive. 2018 will be here soon and Trump has to be held in check somehow between now and then. But so many people are completely dismayed and don’t know what to do. I plan on making an impact so I can look back on these years and say that I didn’t sit idly by while Trump and his cronies turn this already great nation into an authoritarian nightmare for those that don’t look a certain way or believe in a particular deity.

We have a lot to think about and a lot of work to do, folks.