The convenience of a voice-controlled home comes at the cost of privacy. The cost is lower when you spend a little bit more on the Apple HomePod mini, argues Chris Smith.
After Apple announced the HomePod mini smart speaker during the iPhone 12 event you may have heard some familiar complaints. “£99? Typical Apple overpricing everything” was a familiar response on Twitter.
“Why would you buy this when you can get a top Echo Dot for half that,” others said. A colleague even pointed out that asking price would get you a house full of Echo Dot speakers on Prime Day. He’s right, but that’s the wrong way to look at it.
Let’s put aside that the HomePod mini hardware is far more attractive, potentially sounds better and arguably offers superior control over your smart home devices. This is about privacy and security.
For £99 you’re getting a private smart speaker, which you definitely cannot say about rival devices from Google and Amazon. Apple is making this a key selling point for a reason. Because its rivals are pre-occupied with recouping any hardware losses with something far more valuable – the thousands upon thousands of words you’ll utter to the smart speaker over its lifetime.
Apple sets out its stall. HomePod mini is a privacy-centric device. No ‘Hey, Siri’ requests are associated with the user’s Apple ID. Recordings are not saved to your account under the proviso of ‘improving your experience’. The information is never granted to third-parties or advertisers. If you’re sending messages from the HomePod, the device interacts with the iPhone and the iPhone alone. Nothing goes to Apple’s servers in the meantime.
Let’s look at the alternative. There are good reasons the Echo Dot and Nest Home Mini speakers are so affordable. There’s a reason the Echo Dot is offered for half it’s reasonable RRP at various points throughout the year. There are reasons Google will practically give the Nest Home Mini away with a box of cereal these days.
Amazon and Google want these devices in homes. They are competing in a voice assistant arms race, because the value to both companies far outstrips hardware sales. Everything you tell the Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa assistants is sent to the cloud and is immediately associated with your account. Unless you manually delete it, it will remain there.
Google recently introduced a Guest Mode for the Assistant, which will handle the request without syncing it back to your Google account. But you have to ask for it. The Apple HomePod mini does this automatically as the default and only setting.
In a letter sent to a US Senate committee last June, Amazon admitted that even when users request to delete their Alexa data from their account, it doesn’t always disappear. Text transcripts often remain for a period of time.
Beyond what Amazon itself does with the data, there have been one too many Alexa mishaps for complete faith in Amazon’s practices. In 2018, a family in Portland, Oregon, reported their personal voice recordings were sent to a random contact. There have been plenty of other worrying incidences since.
Apple isn’t perfect. The revelations that outside quality control contractors had access to users’ Siri recordings and overheard them having sex, discussing drug deals and their medical conditions, among other things.
That discovery sent shockwaves through the tech industry. We soon found that Facebook (of course), Microsoft, Google and Amazon were at it too. Apple remedied the situation somewhat in iOS 13.2, enabling users to opt out of sharing audio recordings with quality control. However, damage to Apple’s privacy record had been done, somewhat undermining a key pledge.
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Despite that the fact remains. Apple’s business model doesn’t rely on your data. Sure, the company probably hopes a HomePod purchase locks you into Apple Music (because it sure doesn’t support bloody Spotify), will keep you listening to the Apple’s Podcasts app and subscribing to the Apple TV Plus channel. It assumes you’ll keep buying iPhones, because Lord knows a HomePod is useless with Android. There’s a greater chance that, with a HomePod running the show, you’ll be more invested in HomeKit compatible products.
The goal is the health and prominence of the wider ecosystem or products and services. It is not your data. That’s the difference and that’s why, for iPhone owners, the HomePod mini well worth the extra £50.