SIZ­ING UP HOMEPOD

Can Ap­ple’s Smart Speaker Beat Ama­zon Echo & Google Home?

iPhone Life Magazine - - iPhone LIfe - by David Aver­bach

To say I'm ob­sessed with speakers might be an un­der­state­ment. In eighth grade, I was sup­posed to write an es­say on my most val­ued pos­ses­sion. I chose my Sony boom­box. As an adult, I now have a speaker in al­most ev­ery room of my house. So when I watched Ap­ple an­nounce the new HomePod at this year's World­wide De­vel­op­ers Con­fer­ence, I felt like a kid in a candy store. Then I heard the price ($350) and things got a lit­tle more com­pli­cated.

In a lot of ways, Ap­ple is late to the smart speaker party. In ad­di­tion to the Ama­zon Echo and Echo Dot, Google re­cently re­leased a smart speaker of its own called Google Home. Not only is Ap­ple en­ter­ing into an al­ready crowded field, but it's also of­fer­ing a prod­uct that's sig­nif­i­cantly more ex­pen­sive than the Google Home ($129) and Ama­zon Echo ($179.99).

In or­der to jus­tify the high price tag, Ap­ple has made the HomePod into a high-end speaker. It fea­tures seven beam­form­ing tweet­ers (that de­liver higher sound fre­quen­cies) and a 4-inch for­ward-fac­ing sub­woofer that in early demos de­liv­ers im­pres­sive bass that far sur­passes its com­pe­ti­tion (the Echo's woofer is only 2.5 inches).

The HomePod also packs six mi­cro­phones and the same A8 chip found in the iPhone 6. These im­pres­sive specs sup­pos­edly give the HomePod the smarts to scan the room and op­ti­mize sound qual­ity to fit the space it's in. Ap­ple em­pha­sized the HomePod's spa­tial aware­ness as its most dis­tinc­tive fea­ture, al­low­ing one small de­vice to take on the un­prece­dented task of de­liv­er­ing a full sur­round sound ex­pe­ri­ence.

The Echo and Home are both smart as­sis­tants first and speakers sec­ond. Un­like the com­pe­ti­tion, the HomePod is a pre­mium speaker first and a smart as­sis­tant sec­ond. When an­nounc­ing the HomePod, Siri al­most seemed like an af­ter­thought. Ap­ple ex­ec­u­tive Phil Schiller spent the ma­jor­ity of his time de­scrib­ing the speaker's sound qual­ity and only touched on the Siri in­te­gra­tion at the end. Ap­ple won't re­lease the HomePod un­til De­cem­ber, so we'll have to wait to fully re­view the au­dio qual­ity, but early demos cer­tainly con­firm the HomePod is in a dif­fer­ent au­dio class than both the Echo and the Home.

In some ways, Ap­ple's de­ci­sion to make a pre­mium smart speaker makes a lot of sense given the over­all po­si­tion of its prod­uct lineup. Ap­ple has cen­tered its en­tire busi­ness model around mak­ing high-qual­ity prod­ucts that jus­tify a higher price tag than com­peti­tors and ul­ti­mately earn a higher profit mar­gin. This strat­egy has al­lowed Ap­ple to cap­ture 80 per­cent of prof­its in the smart­phone mar­ket de­spite the iPhone only own­ing 14 per­cent of the mar­ket share.

How­ever, Ap­ple has an up­hill bat­tle com­pet­ing head on with the Ama­zon Echo and Google Home. The Echo has been out for a cou­ple of years now and has an im­pres­sive port­fo­lio of third-party voice apps called “skills.” Ama­zon Echo now has over 10,000 skills, in­clud­ing the abil­ity to or­der a pizza, call an Uber, or get the news from the New York Times. Ap­ple did not men­tion any third-party in­te­gra­tions, so it's safe to as­sume that at launch the HomePod will only work with Ap­ple's built-in apps. The Google Home is lever­ag­ing Google's app and hard­ware ecosys­tem, as well as Google's ex­per­tise in search, to dis­tin­guish it­self from the Echo and now the HomePod. Google Home has the abil­ity to work with Google ser­vices such as Cal­en­dar and Maps to tell you your sched­ule and give you traf­fic in­for­ma­tion. It also works with Google's me­dia stream­ing de­vice Chrome­cast to con­trol your TV. Google Home can also dis­tin­guish be­tween dif­fer­ent fam­ily mem­bers' voices to of­fer per­son­al­ized re­sponses. Fi­nally and per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly, the Google Home is more ac­cu­rate at searching the web to re­spond to queries.

In some ways, a more nat­u­ral com­peti­tor for the HomePod may be the Sonos Play:3. Sonos is the in­dus­try leader in high­end wire­less speakers. The Play:3 is a $300 wire­less speaker

“Un­like the com­pe­ti­tion, the HomePod is a pre­mium speaker first and a smart as­sis­tant sec­ond.”

with com­pa­ra­ble sound qual­ity and no direct Siri in­te­gra­tion. But Sonos has a large of­fer­ing of speakers, in­clud­ing many cheaper op­tions. Sonos is also known for the re­li­a­bil­ity of its wire­less stream­ing, some­thing that AirPlay has his­tor­i­cally strug­gled with.

The down­side of Ap­ple's fo­cus on sound is that the HomePod is a bit of a jack of all trades, but doesn't ex­cel at any one thing. If what you care about is high-qual­ity wire­less au­dio, there are speakers avail­able with com­pa­ra­ble au­dio qual­ity for a cheaper price. If you care about hav­ing a smart as­sis­tant, then the Ama­zon Echo is light-years ahead of Ap­ple in terms of third-party apps and use­ful fea­tures.

The main ad­van­tage that the HomePod has go­ing for it, and the rea­son why it may ul­ti­mately be a suc­cess de­spite its lim­i­ta­tions, is the fact that Ap­ple can in­te­grate its speaker into its ecosys­tem in a way that no other com­pany can. This is the key to Ap­ple's win­ning for­mula: once you're in Ap­ple's ecosys­tem, it's so con­ve­nient to con­tinue us­ing prod­ucts that in­te­grate with that ecosys­tem that you're will­ing to sac­ri­fice a lit­tle bit on price or fea­ture set. Send­ing iMes­sages and lis­ten­ing to Ap­ple Music are go­ing to be dead sim­ple with Home- Pod. It will al­ready work with your Ap­ple ID and al­ready have all of your con­tacts, cal­en­dar in­for­ma­tion, and to-do lists. Ap­ple also has the largest app store in the world at its dis­posal. Once Ap­ple opens up the speaker to de­vel­op­ers, it won't take long for them to flood the App Store with com­pat­i­ble apps.

So the ques­tion re­mains, should you buy it? There are two main fac­tors to con­sider: Do you need a high-end speaker? And are you com­mit­ted to Ap­ple's ecosys­tem? In my opin­ion, every­one who can af­ford it, should have a high-end speaker in their home. Music sounds so much bet­ter on a nice speaker and you need a pow­er­ful speaker if you ever have com­pany over. If you al­ready have a high-end speaker that you're happy with, you may be bet­ter off buy­ing an Ama­zon Echo Dot and hook­ing it up to your ex­ist­ing speaker. If you don't care about hav­ing a high-qual­ity speaker and you're not com­mit­ted to Ap­ple's ecosys­tem, then you may want to con­sider the Ama­zon Echo or Google Home. If you use iMes­sage, Ap­ple Cal­en­dar, Ap­ple Music, etc., then us­ing the HomePod will likely be a much bet­ter ex­pe­ri­ence for you than us­ing the Echo or Home. Even so, it may be wise to wait un­til the sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion HomePod comes out next year. By then, Ap­ple will likely have added third-party in­te­gra­tions and low­ered the price.

“The Ama­zon Echo is lightyears ahead of Ap­ple in terms of third-party apps and use­ful fea­tures.”

David Aver­bach is the CEO and Pub­lisher of iPhone Life mag­a­zine. David has an ob­ses­sion with all things Ap­ple. He grew up on Macs and now has a Mac­Book Pro, iPhone, iPad, Ap­ple TV, and an Ap­ple Watch. David en­joys trav­el­ing and Ul­ti­mate Fris­bee. He has been to over 20 coun­tries. To con­tact David, email him at David@iphonelife.com.

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