Three fea­tures Ap­ple’s HomePod needs

The HomePod needs to shine in a few key ar­eas if Ap­ple wants it to make a splash. Dan Moren re­ports

Macworld - - Contents -

It’s pretty clear that the HomePod was one of the star at­trac­tions of this year’s WWDC. For a prod­uct that had lit­tle in the way of ac­tual stage time (and even less in terms of what was demon­strated to jour­nal­ists) and won’t ship for sev­eral months yet, it cer­tainly grabbed a lot of the air­time di­rectly fol­low­ing the event. And in that, it fol­lows in the merry tra­di­tion of prod­ucts like the orig­i­nal iPhone and the iPad.

But it’s hard to tell from the mea­gre time de­voted to it just how im­por­tant Ap­ple thinks the HomePod is. Its ‘kicker’ place­ment at the end of the key­note would sug­gest that the com­pany thinks the de­vice is po­si­tioned to make a big splash, but the in­tense fo­cus on mu­sic also seems to point to more of a niche util­ity for many.

So, which is it? Is the HomePod a prod­uct on the same level of im­por­tance as the iPad or Ap­ple TV, or is it sim­ply a souped up ver­sion of the iPod hi-fi?

WYSIWYG

First off, let me say that I’m a firm be­liever that with Ap­ple what you see is gen­er­ally what you get. So the ru­mours that the HomePod might con­tain some sig­nif­i­cant hitherto unseen func­tion­al­ity, like a re­place­ment for the Air­Port Ex­treme, seem to me en­tirely fan­ci­ful. There may be small im­ple­men­ta­tion de­tails or fea­tures that we haven’t seen yet, but what Ap­ple is selling is a high-qual­ity net­worked speaker with Siri built-in. Any­thing more than that is pure con­jec­ture.

That’s not noth­ing. As Sonos has proved, there’s a mar­ket for high-qual­ity net­worked speak­ers. If there’s room in that mar­ket, it’s largely be­cause as pop­u­lar as Sonos is among a cer­tain class of peo­ple, it doesn’t have the brand reach that Ap­ple does.

Plus, that ded­i­ca­tion to mu­sic and au­dio is some­thing that runs deep in Ap­ple’s prod­uct line. Yes, the iPod hi-fi might not have been a big hit in its day, but I know a few peo­ple who still have

them, and the com­plaints cer­tainly aren’t about the sound qual­ity of the de­vice. I have no doubt that the HomePod will prove to be an ex­cel­lent speaker – the ques­tion is, well, ev­ery­thing else.

Ques­tion­ing Siri

The HomePod sweet spot is ex­actly where Ap­ple thinks it is: com­bin­ing the fea­tures of a Sonos and a smart speaker like the Ama­zon Echo or Google Home. The com­pany is right that no­body has man­aged to put both of those things to­gether yet – as an owner of mul­ti­ple Echos, a Google Home, and a cou­ple Sonos speak­ers, I whole­heart­edly agree that it would be great to stream­line that setup into a sin­gle con­ve­nient pack­age. Just as when Steve Jobs an­nounced that the iPhone was a widescreen iPod, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary mobile phone, and a break­through In­ter­net com­mu­ni­ca­tor in a sin­gle de­vice, vir­tual-as­sis­tant-pow­ered speak­ers and great net­worked speak­ers should re­ally be one and the same.

But those smarts are where the big­gest risk comes in. There’s cer­tainly been a per­cep­tion that Siri has been slower to ad­vance, es­pe­cially as com­pe­ti­tion from Ama­zon and Google has be­come stronger. A re­cent re­port sug­gests that con­sumers are us­ing Siri less of­ten; while those types of sur­veys are best con­sumed with a grain of salt, let’s set aside for the mo­ment whether or not Siri is ac­tu­ally less ca­pa­ble. I’d argue the im­por­tant is­sue to take away from that is one of con­text. Yes, we’ve heard the ar­gu­ment that a vir­tual as­sis­tant

in a mobile de­vice that goes ev­ery­where with you is more use­ful, but I’m not so sure that’s true. I use the vir­tual as­sis­tants that are teth­ered to my home far, far more than I use Siri on my phone. A not in­signif­i­cant part of that is re­li­a­bil­ity: I find that they are more con­sis­tently re­spon­sive than Siri. But a big­ger point is, once again, con­text. I’m far more com­fort­able talk­ing to a vir­tual as­sis­tant in the com­fort of my own home than I am when I’m in pub­lic with my phone. Not to men­tion that home, my phone is of­ten some­where that Siri won’t work – in my pocket, or in an­other room – whereas the Echo and the Google Home don’t re­quire me to fum­ble around look­ing for a de­vice.

Of course, putting Siri into a home con­text could mean that peo­ple end up us­ing it more, which could in turn trig­ger more rapid de­vel­op­ment on the as­sis­tant. Ul­ti­mately, the only way Siri gets bet­ter is if peo­ple try to use it more. In the end, Ap­ple is fo­cus­ing on mu­sic be­cause it’s an easy en­try point for most peo­ple, and it’s closely tied to the de­vice – in a way, Ap­ple is us­ing voice con­trol of mu­sic as

a Tro­jan horse to get peo­ple ac­cli­mated to its voice as­sis­tant, and then branch­ing out from there.

The price of ad­mis­sion

The other big risk for Ap­ple is on the price side. The com­pany has al­ready made the ar­gu­ment that a HomePod is cheaper than buy­ing both an Echo and a Sonos speaker, and sure, that’s fair. But the virtue of the Sonos is the way they work to­gether. You want to buy two HomePods and you’re talk­ing about £700 – not an in­con­sid­er­able amount of money. Cer­tainly putting a HomePod in ev­ery room of your house quickly be­comes an ex­pen­sive propo­si­tion – per­haps even more so than equip­ping your home with Sonos speak­ers and an Echo.

But Ap­ple has never shied away from of­fer­ing what it sees as premium prod­uct for a premium price, and the HomePod is no ex­cep­tion. That’s a strat­egy that has largely worked out for the com­pany to date. The real ques­tion is whether or not the con­sumers will con­sider a smart-as­sis­tant com­bined with a net­worked speaker to be as es­sen­tial a pur­chase as the de­vices that have come be­fore. If the Echo and Google Home are any in­di­ca­tion, my bet is that those who do take the plunge will quickly con­sider it in­dis­pens­able, while those who haven’t yet seen it in ac­tion will be more scep­ti­cal. Even at its best, the HomePod isn’t likely to reach the sales heights of the iPhone, or even the iPad or Mac. But put it in the same league as the Ap­ple TV, Ap­ple Watch, and even the AirPods and, well, that will be noth­ing to sniff at.

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