From Abner Li, 9to5Google:

What could have been starts with Google Now, a proactive feed that showed the weather, upcoming calendar events, birthdays, commute and travel information, package alerts, movies/concerts you might like, nearby events/places/restaurants, news updates, and much more, including information from third-party apps.

All this was displayed via a powerful card metaphor that showed just the relevant pieces of information. Users had one feed accessible to the left of the main Android homescreen or quickly launched by swiping up from the home button to keep track of their day and see what was next.

You didn’t have to jump into different apps to see upcoming flight details, check email to see when a package was arriving, or open a multitude of first and third-party apps to see your information. In those applications, you’re subjected to different layouts and have to learn different behaviors to access what is fundamentally your information.

Google Now was the high water mark of the “smart assistant” craze that started in the early teens. Since then, we’ve seen both smart home speakers and smart watches move toward more of a “question and answer” approach where you query your device for information or you’re pushed information about your tastes in a “feed” of some kind. I have a number of smart speakers in my house (and I’ve tried Siri, Google and Alexa) but I’ll be honest – I almost never use them becuase they’re a pain in the ass to use and they’re not very smart. At this point I bet 90% of my commands are comprised of adjusting volume, turning on/off a few lights and setting timers. Not exactly an intelligent assitant.

What I wish we saw more of was the Google Now approach – proactive data, notifications and reminders about things going on in your world. The watch is a great place for this because the interruptions can be unobtrusive, customizable and almost always with you. Apple has a Siri watch face that tries to accomplish what Google Now was going for but it feels like a ghost town – no real updates have been made in a long time.

I’m hopeful that increaesd competition in the watch field with Google giving their strategy a reboot will allow for more experimentation and pressure to make both platforms better digital assitants than some speaker could ever be.

Google Now, Glass, & Wear — The future we lost by making watches miniature phones

From Abner Li, 9to5Google:

What could have been starts with Google Now, a proactive feed that showed the weather, upcoming calendar events, birthdays, commute and travel information, package alerts, movies/concerts you might like, nearby events/places/restaurants, news updates, and much more, including information from third-party apps.

All this was displayed via a powerful card metaphor that showed just the relevant pieces of information. Users had one feed accessible to the left of the main Android homescreen or quickly launched by swiping up from the home button to keep track of their day and see what was next.

You didn’t have to jump into different apps to see upcoming flight details, check email to see when a package was arriving, or open a multitude of first and third-party apps to see your information. In those applications, you’re subjected to different layouts and have to learn different behaviors to access what is fundamentally your information.

Google Now was the high water mark of the “smart assistant” craze that started in the early teens. Since then, we’ve seen both smart home speakers and smart watches move toward more of a “question and answer” approach where you query your device for information or you’re pushed information about your tastes in a “feed” of some kind. I have a number of smart speakers in my house (and I’ve tried Siri, Google and Alexa) but I’ll be honest – I almost never use them becuase they’re a pain in the ass to use and they’re not very smart. At this point I bet 90% of my commands are comprised of adjusting volume, turning on/off a few lights and setting timers. Not exactly an intelligent assitant.

What I wish we saw more of was the Google Now approach – proactive data, notifications and reminders about things going on in your world. The watch is a great place for this because the interruptions can be unobtrusive, customizable and almost always with you. Apple has a Siri watch face that tries to accomplish what Google Now was going for but it feels like a ghost town – no real updates have been made in a long time.

I’m hopeful that increaesd competition in the watch field with Google giving their strategy a reboot will allow for more experimentation and pressure to make both platforms better digital assitants than some speaker could ever be.

From The Verge:

Google isn’t totally out of smart home security, though. It still sells video doorbells, security cameras, smoke alarms, and more.

For now.

Unless you’re using something that is absolutely mission critical to Google, prepare to have the rug pulled out from under you. Good on them for continuing to support the platform for now but you can already see the “sunset” blog post 12 months from now.

Google discontinues its Google Nest Secure alarm system

From The Verge:

Google isn’t totally out of smart home security, though. It still sells video doorbells, security cameras, smoke alarms, and more.

For now.

Unless you’re using something that is absolutely mission critical to Google, prepare to have the rug pulled out from under you. Good on them for continuing to support the platform for now but you can already see the “sunset” blog post 12 months from now.

From the Youtube TV blog:

As we continue to evaluate how to provide the best possible service and content for you, our membership price will be $64.99. This new price takes effect today, June 30, for new members. Existing subscribers will see these changes reflected in their subsequent billing cycle on or after July 30.

I get that the content business is a cutthroat, low margin world. But we’re slowly getting into cable prices – which defeats the entire purpose of services like YouTube TV and Hulu Live TV.

To our YouTube TV members: an update to our content and price

From the Youtube TV blog:

As we continue to evaluate how to provide the best possible service and content for you, our membership price will be $64.99. This new price takes effect today, June 30, for new members. Existing subscribers will see these changes reflected in their subsequent billing cycle on or after July 30.

I get that the content business is a cutthroat, low margin world. But we’re slowly getting into cable prices – which defeats the entire purpose of services like YouTube TV and Hulu Live TV.

See what I did there?

As mentioned recently, I have switched over to Apple Music from Spotify. Part of the decision was based on personal preferences around the 2 services, but the reason that I was reluctant to drop Spotify in the first place was the lock-in I had with Google’s Chromecast ecosystem. As it turns out, by looking to invest in nicer speakers I ended up switching services and voice assistants along the way. I thought it’d be worth discussion as to why I decided to move to Sonos from the Chromecast setup we had, and some of the pros and cons I’ve noticed in the past few months.

Google stops playing (and sounding) nice

Something funny happened in the past year or so. Google, long known as the ‘open’ ecosystem, became a bit less so. With continued integration between the Nest and Google lines, it’s becoming less open and more of an ecosystem play with Google’s products. That’s fine, but it’s not why I initially bought Chromecasts, Google (now Nest) Hubs, etc. I was hopeful they’d give me the best shot of buying nearly any smart home product and they’d work.

Combine that with an increasing discomfort with Google’s data collection across more and more areas and mediocre sound quality on the Google Homes (and especially the Nest Hub & Home Minis), and I was interested in checking out a different approach to whole-home audio.

A few months ago I had posted an article about Google slowly locking down their smart assistant ecosystem and how I felt like it was time to explore a change. My home setup was a few Google Home & Minis, 2 Chromecast Audios plugged into existing speaker setups on our deck and patio areas, and a Google Nest Hub in our kitchen. We used Spotify for the most part, but I missed the feeling I used to have when using iTunes / Apple Music in years prior. Specifically, I’ve always been more interested in albums and Spotify is very playlist and “mood” centric. I think there’s a time an place for that but in general I was questioning the value of paying for Spotify despite its strengths compared to Apple Music.

Outside of the Google Home stuff, most of our “smart home” stuff is pretty platform agnostic:

  • 2 Nest thermostats
  • A bunch of Wemo and iHome smart plug
  • MyQ garage door
  • A Roomba
  • A HomePod (obviously the biggest outlier)

I’ve mostly relied on using Homebridge via a Raspberry Pi to stitch everything together so that we can use HomeKit scenes to automate most of our scenes (morning, evening, leaving & arriving home). We don’t really automate a ton, but I like being able to make sure the garage is closed if we’re both not home for a certain period of time, the lights are off if we’re away, or they come on if we are home and it’s almost sunset. Overall, pretty basic stuff – I’ve grown kind of sour on most of the stuff “smart” home devices offer these days so we’ve kept things pretty simple at our new house.

If we were going to ditch the Google Homes, we needed something to replace them with something that provided great sound, integrated with whatever music service we wanted, and worked in multiple rooms. Enter Sonos.

Why did I choose Sonos?

I’d been thinking about getting Sonos speakers for years now, as I wanted to get something that was service and platform agnostic. Sonos nails that – they integrate with all of the major streaming services, podcast services, audiobook vendors and even offer multiple options for voice assistants (Google Assistant and Alexa). Throw in Airplay 2 support and it was a no-brainer to upgrade most of our Google Home devices with Sonos Ones. One of my favorite things about the Sonos ecosystem is that you can control the speakers via their app or most services’ default apps (Apple Music is an exception, no huge surprise there).

There was a catch with our house – we have outdoor speakers that wouldn’t be easy to hook up to a Sonos speaker. To get our deck wired up, we replaced the Chromecast Audios we were using with 2 Airport Express units that I bought off of eBay. They’re AirPlay 2 compatible, so I was able to plug them straight into the amps for the 2 outdoor speakers we have and we had an Airplay 2 optimized home. Instead of spending hundreds for a Sonos amp, I was able to get something “good enough” for around $45.

Comparing AirPlay 2 to Casting

Previously, we had an entire setup that was all Google Cast powered, so we could ask any speaker to play music and it’d start playing Spotify wherever we wanted. With Sonos speakers, we introduced some small trade offs for the additional flexibility and sound quality. Some of the key differences between Airplay 2 and Casting:

  • Casting isn’t tied to your device at all. Airplay 2 still relies on a source to stream to each audio source, so that means if you were to stray too far away from your WiFi while controlling music it’d stop playing eventually. That’s not the case with Sonos, only Airplay 2 based streams.
  • Native iOS integration of Airplay 2 means that management of whole-home audio is much easier than it was from Spotify or the Google Home app (from control center or the Apple Watch now playing screen you can control any speaker that’s playing music)
  • Google Cast allows you to create named groups to send music to, while Airplay 2 uses your house layout to dictate grouping. Invoking an entire floor is pretty easy on both platforms but if I want to only call on a subset of speakers I could name that subset with Cast, where on Airplay I’d need to ask for each room when invoking that subset. Hoping I can eventually use HomePod shortcuts integration to fix this.
  • I use apps to invoke music way more than by voice now. This is actually a good thing because previously I’d typically ask for the same few playlists over and over. It’s similar to how I panic and order the same meal every time at a restaurant when pressed. Now, I find myself queueing up different albums and playlists all the time.

Add a dash of HomePod

Airplay 2 stuff won’t work with the Sonos system so I have to control them with my phone or iPad if I want to play music everywhere, but this really isn’t a big deal. If we ever want to go 100% into the Sonos world, we can always get something like the Sonos Amp, but I can’t really imagine that happening, to be honest. The only time we really need whole-home audio are if we’re having some sort of group gathering and want to play music everywhere. For now, if I want to play anything on our Sonos setup, outdoor speakers and my office don’t fit into the picture. But as previously mentioned, Sonos speakers are all Airplay 2 compatible, so if I want to play a song everywhere I just have to invoke the music from my phone, iPad or Mac.

Or a HomePod.

Another purchase I made about a year ago was a HomePod. They were on sale at Best Buy, so I picked on up, figuring I’d either return it or sell it eventually. The sound is fantastic, filling my office with very rich sound and serving as a HomeKit hub. Obviously, there are limitations to using a HomePod as well – currently it’s very ecosystem-limited. You can Airplay nearly anything to it but as far as native integration goes, it’s Apple Music or the highway. But it’s by far the best sounding speaker I own. It has smarts to auto tune itself for the room that it’s in, and it shows.

For a while, I just used it when I was working from home but once we made the Sonos switch, I started thinking more about moving to Apple Music. Originally, moving to Sonos wasn’t really about moving away from Spotify. That happened after messing around with the possibilities of an AirPlay 2 based whole-home audio setup. With HomePod + AirPlay 2 you can use your phone to control the HomePod and make that the primary audio source, sending music to the other speakers throughout the house. That way, you don’t run into most of the limitations that AirPlay 2 has compared to Chromecast. Since the HomePod is streaming music to all of the other speakers in our house instead of my phone, it’s really the best of both worlds. If Apple ends up allowing Spotify as a native HomePod integration later this year, it’ll be an even more elegant solution.

Google Assistant to Alexa

My original goals were to replace the Google Homes with better sounding speakers but leave nearly everything else in tact. However, one that original choice was set into motion I found myself making other tweaks as I went – integration with the HomePod, focusing more on Airplay 2, and then switching the default assistant on the Sonos speakers to use Alexa.

The reason is simply the cascading effects of moving to Apple Music. Alexa works with Apple, while Google does not. It’s still too early to have a ton of observations about Alexa vs Google Assistant but I will say that the UX of the Alexa app is light years better than the nested options hellscape Google has put out.

Conclusion

I’ve definitely added a little bit of short term complexity to how we were playing music in our house by making this switch. I know my wife has had a few instances where she throws her hands up with my constant experimentation with this sort of stuff. However, the trade offs have been worth it so far for me:

Pros

  • Way better sounding speakers overall.
  • More choices & service integration.
  • I’ve been really happy with Apple Music as a Spotify convert.
  • More music variety as a result of me invoking music via apps instead of voice.
  • Moving to Alexa puts my tech eggs in more baskets, and reduces my dependence on Google.

Cons

  • The previous setup was more streamlined compared to what we have right now. We could invoke music to any speaker via voice and it just worked.

I’ll be interested to see what Apple has in store for the HomePod as opening it up will further improve the flexibility of what we can play across the entire home. If Apple ends up releasing a mini version or one with a screen (my dream product), then we’d really be cooking.

Casting Google’s Speakers Aside

See what I did there? As mentioned recently, I have switched over to Apple Music from Spotify. Part of the decision was based on personal preferences around the 2 services, but the reason that I was reluctant to drop Spotify in the first place was the lock-in I had with Google’s Chromecast ecosystem. As it […]

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I’m always torn when I see these sorts of smart city initiatives pop up. In reality, it’s about how I feel about smart home stuff in general. On one hand, I’m excited about the promise of an efficient and “always learning” city that can help planners optimize. In a world that will be increasingly affected by climate change, finding ways to squeeze every bit of efficiency out of the existing infrastructure is obviously a win.

However, rarely do these things come without hidden complexity or tradeoffs. In this case it’s cost overruns, privacy implications and half-baked solutions.

Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs scraps its ambitious Toronto project

From Ars Technica:

But Sidewalk Labs’ vision was in trouble long before the pandemic. Since its inception, the project had been criticized by progressive activists concerned about how the Alphabet company would collect and protect data, and who would own that data. Conservative Ontario premier Doug Ford, meanwhile, wondered whether taxpayers would get enough bang from the project’s bucks. New York-based Sidewalk Labs wrestled with its local partner, the waterfront redevelopment agency, over ownership of the project’s intellectual property and, most critically, its financing. At times, its operators seemed confounded by the vagaries of Toronto politics. The project had missed deadline after deadline.

I’m always torn when I see these sorts of smart city initiatives pop up. In reality, it’s about how I feel about smart home stuff in general. On one hand, I’m excited about the promise of an efficient and “always learning” city that can help planners optimize. In a world that will be increasingly affected by climate change, finding ways to squeeze every bit of efficiency out of the existing infrastructure is obviously a win.

However, rarely do these things come without hidden complexity or tradeoffs. In this case it’s cost overruns, privacy implications and half-baked solutions.

I saw this interesting comic posted on Kottke.org:

Contact tracing comic

Sounds like Apple and Google are doing something very similar with their announced BLE approach to tracing.

This is super interesting. Contact tracing and testing are the 2 best bets to getting us back to a sense of normal. Glad to see the big guys are getting along and building tools that can make contact tracing easier. I love that it’s so privacy focused as well. The article goes on to point out some of the flaws in a system like this that could produce a lot of false positives or not provide the level of the risk involved:

The method still has potential weaknesses. In crowded areas, it could flag people in adjacent rooms who aren’t actually sharing space with the user, making people worry unnecessarily. It may also not capture the nuance of how long someone was exposed — working next to an infected person all day, for example, will expose you to a much greater viral load than walking by them on the street. And it depends on people having apps in the short term and up-to-date smartphones in the long term, which could mean it’s less effective in areas with lower connectivity.

Still, I’m heartened by the fact that the tech industry seems to be showing their promise during this pandemic.

Google and Apple launching coronavirus contact-tracing system for iOS and Android

From The Verge:

Apple and Google will introduce a pair of iOS and Android APIs in mid-May and make sure these health authorities’ apps can implement them. During this phase, users will still have to download an app to participate in contact-tracing, which could limit adoption. But in the months after the API is complete, the companies will work on building tracing functionality into the underlying operating system, as an option immediately available to everyone with an iOS or Android phone.

This is super interesting. Contact tracing and testing are the 2 best bets to getting us back to a sense of normal. Glad to see the big guys are getting along and building tools that can make contact tracing easier. I love that it’s so privacy focused as well. The article goes on to point out some of the flaws in a system like this that could produce a lot of false positives or not provide the level of the risk involved:

The method still has potential weaknesses. In crowded areas, it could flag people in adjacent rooms who aren’t actually sharing space with the user, making people worry unnecessarily. It may also not capture the nuance of how long someone was exposed — working next to an infected person all day, for example, will expose you to a much greater viral load than walking by them on the street. And it depends on people having apps in the short term and up-to-date smartphones in the long term, which could mean it’s less effective in areas with lower connectivity.

Still, I’m heartened by the fact that the tech industry seems to be showing their promise during this pandemic.

Apple Newsroom:

Amazon, Apple, Google, and the Zigbee Alliance today announced a new working group that plans to develop and promote the adoption of a new, royalty-free connectivity standard to increase compatibility among smart home products, with security as a fundamental design tenet. Zigbee Alliance board member companies such as IKEA, Legrand, NXP Semiconductors, Resideo, Samsung SmartThings, Schneider Electric, Signify (formerly Philips Lighting), Silicon Labs, Somfy, and Wulian are also onboard to join the working group and contribute to the project.

While this is just a press release, it’s still good to see these companies trying to move closer together, not further apart. I’ve been slowly migrating things in our house over to a Homekit / Homebridge setup but still using our Google Homes to trigger a lot of actions with voice. Ideally, keeping things platform-agnostic would allow me to just choose the best tech and then all of the main voice assistant vendors would work with them.

The name Project Connected Home over IP really rolls off the tongue, eh?

Project Connected Home over IP

Apple Newsroom:

Amazon, Apple, Google, and the Zigbee Alliance today announced a new working group that plans to develop and promote the adoption of a new, royalty-free connectivity standard to increase compatibility among smart home products, with security as a fundamental design tenet. Zigbee Alliance board member companies such as IKEA, Legrand, NXP Semiconductors, Resideo, Samsung SmartThings, Schneider Electric, Signify (formerly Philips Lighting), Silicon Labs, Somfy, and Wulian are also onboard to join the working group and contribute to the project.

While this is just a press release, it’s still good to see these companies trying to move closer together, not further apart. I’ve been slowly migrating things in our house over to a Homekit / Homebridge setup but still using our Google Homes to trigger a lot of actions with voice. Ideally, keeping things platform-agnostic would allow me to just choose the best tech and then all of the main voice assistant vendors would work with them.

The name Project Connected Home over IP really rolls off the tongue, eh?

As we head into the holiday season, I thought I’d throw my hat in the “best of the year post” ring with a list of a few of my favorite personal tech items of the year. Some of these are bigger than others, but I wanted to list out some things I’m thankful for this year.

Apple Watch Series 5

I’ve owned the Series 0 (review here and here) and a few Series 3 versions before pulling the trigger on the 5 this year and the always on display is a game changer. I’ve gotten into sleep tracking by using the fantastic Autosleep app alongside the built-in fitness tracking and it’s really been illuminating. I’ve changed my sleep habits as a result and feel like I have more of an understanding of my exercise, eating and sleep habits by simply creating a habit of quantifying all of the things I do.

AirPods

I actually got gen 1 AirPods last year for Father’s Day but my use has really skyrocketed in the past year. I have noise-cancelling QC35s and almost never use them because the AirPods are just so darn convenient. The AirPods Pro seem like game changers, and I’m hoping my gen 1 models last until there’s a second generation of the pros.

Siri Shortcuts

With iOS 13, Siri Shortcuts have gotten super powerful. I’ve been setting more and more of these up over the past few months and it’s helped me automate a lot of little things that Tasker for Android used to allow me to do (and more!) A few examples:

  1. Bus commute: when I leave my work on weekdays between 3-6pm. It checks my departure time in that area against the bus schedule and assumes I’m on the nearest one before the current time. It then sends a text to my wife with my departure time and expected arrival time.
  2. Reading time: I’m asked how long I’d like to read and in which app (Kindle or Apple Books). It then turns on Do Not Disturb for that time period, turns on dark mode, adjusts the volume/brightness and starts up some chill instrumental music. Finally, the app I chose launches.
  3. Create packing list: this shortcut pulls from a Bear note template that I have and creates a new packing list based on the type of trip and prefixes it with a lot of metadata. That way, each trip I go on I update the template with any things I typically forget or need.

Chromecast / Nest Hub music management

Chromecasts can finally “hand off” to other groups/speakers like you can with Airplay 2. So I can be in the Kitchen and say “play this on all speakers” and it’ll keep playing the same music but throughout the entire home. Additionally, the Nest Home Hub now allows you to have more control over speakers from the UI so you can adjust volume for groups and individual speakers. I use this a ton, so I’m super thankful it’s here.

DuckDuckGo is finally good enough

I’ve mostly stopped using Google for search in the past year. DuckDuckGo is a super powerful search engine with privacy at it’s core, and the results are finally good enough for me to put my digital information eggs in multiple baskets. A recent Wired article makes the point better than I ever could. I still use Gmail and Calendar, with an occasional Google Maps search so I’m not burning anything down. Heck, as you can see above, I’m still using Nest stuff so I’m not going anywhere. But I’m also wary of the idea of Surveillance Capitalism being something we’re okay with.

My favorite 2019 tech things

As we head into the holiday season, I thought I’d throw my hat in the “best of the year post” ring with a list of a few of my favorite personal tech items of the year. Some of these are bigger than others, but I wanted to list out some things I’m thankful for this […]

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

Google’s smart home ecosystem is a complete mess

From CNET:

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.