Apple enters the smart speaker fray – a bit late and a bit short

Apple is hosting its developer’s conference this week and kicked things off yesterday with keynote with all their product announcements. Presented last, but predicted by many Apple followers, was their new smart speaker, called HomePod. Despite the precedence set by Google and Amazon, Apple’s focus is different and starts with music.

Phil Schiller introducing HomePad’s “musicologist” features.
Source: Apple keynote

Apple’s Phil Schiller said that it wants to “reinvent home music” and to that end focused on creating a high quality speaker that can “rock the house.” Mr Schiller went into a lot of detail on the audio features and song availability, playlists, smart user interaction, and expanded music-related query understanding. Aside from music, HomePad will answer queries relating to 13 other topics, some very limited in scope, though Home control seems promising. Also, right now, there are no third-party apps, so if you’re a Spotify fan, you’re out of luck.

HomePad’s other areas of expertise, from unit conversion to smart home control.
Source: Apple keynote

Interestingly, when explaining the pricing for the HomePad, Mr Schiller presented it as a mix of two products, a WiFi speaker at $300-$500 and a smart speaker at $100-$200, making the $349 price of the HomePad a good deal. That said, a Google Home at $129 paired with the recommended Sonos Play:1 at $200 comes out cheaper and is easily expandable. Even though the voice activated music playback handoff on Home to other speakers is still a bit buggy, this is something that Google is sure to solve soon.

I liked what Vox had to say about the higher price point in relationship to the current feature set on HomePad: “Amazon and Google’s smart speakers play a supporting role in the companies’ larger business strategies. Amazon’s goal is to make the Echo ubiquitous to help sell Amazon Prime subscriptions and other digital content. Google wants to get users hooked on as many different Google services as possible to support its advertising business. For both companies, the priority is to attract as many customers as possible, without worrying too much about making a profit from each one.” This is true but it’s not just about getting us hooked. Google services complement my Home’s feature set, making personalized information that I need available via a quick interaction.

Apple says this is the first high quality smart speaker (hence the higher price) but its success beyond Apple fans will depend on a few future improvements:

  1. How well will HomePad understand voice commands. A comparison of Siri, Google Assitant, Alexa, and Cortana from a few months ago found Google to be the best at understanding and executing various commands. Apple’s closed garden was detrimental to Siri’s performance in that test and HomePad isn’t any more open. 
  2. How good voice music interactions really are. Spotify has many fans, especially for playlists and recommendations. Google does a great job at understanding what songs the snippets of lyrics I asked for belong to. My favorite Google Music feature, though, is the way it creates a playlist on the fly based on one song I ask it to play, and those playlists are spot on in terms of genre, style, and a mix of stuff I’m familiar with and never heard before. Apple boasts about its musical understanding, knowledge and music catalog, so HomePad should succeed on this front.
  3. How big a role will personalization play and what Apple products will support it.
  4. When and if third party apps will be allowed to launch on HomePad, opening up the speaker to more smart functionality. Google gave out Home devices at I/O specifically to boost third party apps for its Assistant.
  5. Understanding speech and parsing words in a room is a different skill than the same task on a phone held arm’s length away. It becomes frustrating very quickly when it doesn’t work and both Google and Amazon have a head start on Apple here.

It’s interesting that Apple chose to enter this field much later than its competitors and did so with a reduced feature set and hardware that won’t be available for another half a year, but since many Apple fans already own a wide range of Apple products and are happy within the Apple world, they won’t be bothered by HomePad’s limitations. I’m doubtful that it will become be an entry point for non-Apple users to the ecosystem with its current feature set and price point. That said, it’s Apple. Customers buy their products based on features that are less important to me such as design, or perhaps the sound quality really will blow other connected speakers away. It will be interesting to see come the holiday season how successful HomePad is and how its feature set will grow in the next year or two.



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