Apple’s HomePod is set to arrive sometime in ‘early 2018’ after missing its promised December ship date. Based on Apple’s definition of ‘early’ in the year, we can expect HomePod to go on sale any day between now and the end of April.
The smart speaker landscape has changed dramatically since HomePod’s unveil last June however. Missing the holiday quarter certainly wasn’t ideal for Apple, but the real shift is new competition from products that offer similar solutions to HomePod.
The market for HomePod with its premium price and limited skill set would be a challenge for Apple with just one of those factors, but combine the delay with new competitors and the challenge is only amplified: lower prices, wider compatibility, and a late entry to the market will make the $349 Siri-enabled speaker a tougher sell for Apple without a refocused pitch.
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HomePod was initially pitched as a home speaker with both premium audio output for playing Apple Music and access to Siri for smart assistant needs — all in a single device for the first time. Apple actually used a Sonos wireless speaker and the original Amazon Echo as examples of these features existing in separate products, but not together during its product unveil last June.
This is where the pitch gets a bit outdated in the half a year since HomePod was teased. Sonos now offers its One speaker with Amazon Alexa built in, Google Assistant coming soon, and AirPlay 2 coming this year.
But Apple compared HomePod’s audio quality to the mid-sized Sonos Play:3, and Sonos doesn’t offer a version of its higher end speakers with voice assistants built in yet. If you’re comparing Sonos to HomePod and care about the best audio quality, there’s still a reason to choose HomePod.
You can combine any Sonos speaker with any Amazon Echo product for hi-fi music playback controlled by voice though. For example, you can buy the $249 Sonos Play:3 and the $50 Amazon Echo Dot and have the very product Apple showed on stage in June for $50 less than the price of HomePod.
HomePod will be a truly all-in-one device which is simpler to set up, but Sonos One for $150 less will likely satisfy a lot of potential customers (and Sonos works with Apple Music). Want a more premium audio experience than HomePod even promises to offer? Sonos Play:5, a $500 wireless speaker, paired with an Amazon Echo Dot is probably your best solution; Apple doesn’t yet offer a smart speaker that promises to compete with the Play:5’s audio quality.
Both Sonos and Amazon Echo devices were popular products over the holidays, but Apple’s initial launch date never guaranteed shipments before Christmas. The new competition mixed with aggressive price attacks will further limit HomePod’s appeal though.
Amazon aggressively marketed its updated Echo product family (which now includes a better sounding Echo Plus) over the holidays with regularly discounted devices starting at $29. That’s impulse purchase level for a lot of consumers.
As a HomeKit enthusiast, I’ve been eagerly awaiting HomePod as a way to have always-present smart home control throughout my house for toggling smart lights, locks, the thermostat, and more, but there’s a lot of product overlap between Alexa-controlled products and HomeKit-enabled products. Most of my smart home accessories work with both platforms out of the box.
For that reason, I took advantage of the $29 Echo Dot price (regular $49) and deployed Dots throughout my home. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but one HomePod would have sold for the cost of a dozen Echo Dots (which is about how many I ended up buying to have whole-home voice control).
I don’t expect Apple to sell an inferior speaker intended only as a voice control target for voice assistant tasks like smart home control at Echo Dot’s price. I also can’t imagine Apple allowing Siri to work on third-party speakers, especially ones that are sold for less than HomePod. We’re also likely a long, long, long way out from seeing HomePod become a whole lineup of smart speakers at various prices considering how long it’s taking the initial product to ship.
So HomePod as we know it today needs an updated pitch going forward.
I don’t expect Siri to make monumental jumps in terms of capability and quality which is what some people optimistically hope is the reason for the HomePod delay. I also don’t think Apple is using the extra time to beef up HomePod’s skill set. I think Apple is simply finishing the product that was shown in June, and my guess is finishing AirPlay 2 is the reason for the delay.
But Apple can refresh its messaging without changing what HomePod does. Dropping the price before actually shipping wouldn’t hurt. $349 to $329 or $299 wouldn’t make a huge difference to consumers, but it might send the message that Apple gets we’re not in June 2017 anymore and there are compelling options with more appealing prices on the market today.
Even without touching the price, there are ways Apple could pitch HomePod that make it more compelling than a smart speaker that rocks the house.
Based on spending a lot of time with competing products, I believe Apple needs to now promote HomePod as easier to configure and manage, compatible with Apple services like Siri and HomeKit, and less creepy than Amazon and other competitors.
Amazon Echo is compatible with a huge ecosystem of hardware products and software services, but managing and configuring the whole experience is not pretty.
Amazon’s Alexa app being so bad is Apple’s opportunity, and we already know from leaks that the HomePod set up process should be as easy as AirPods. It helps that Apple owns the stack here (and Amazon isn’t prioritizing a good app experience).
Apple doesn’t talk a lot about ecosystem lock-in as a strategy, but it needs to with HomePod. HomePod is the only smart speaker that works with Siri, has voice-controlled Apple Music, and works as a HomeKit hub. Siri support means a whole lot of things like compatibility with Apple Reminders, SiriKit-enabled apps, and simply being connected to your iCloud account with your address book and more.
Podcast playback is also an opportunity for the whole smart speaker landscape. HomePod will work with Apple Podcasts (which I use), and support for third-party podcast players could come in the future. Amazon Echo, Sonos, and similar devices don’t work with Apple’s Podcast directory out of the box and instead rely on other solutions.
If you live in the Apple ecosystem, you’re more likely willing to pay for the best experience for you. HomePod may not be able to play Spotify natively with voice control, but Apple Music subscribers don’t care.
Finally, and this one is classic Apple, there’s privacy. Amazon Echo only listens when you say the hot word (Alexa) just like HomePod and other Apple products only listen after being triggered with the hot phrase Hey Siri.
Amazon does something that Apple would never do with each voice interaction however: Amazon makes each voice interaction available on the web for playback later. Each recording is protected behind your Amazon account credentials, but there’s still something creepy about recordings of your family speaking being available on the web, and a lot of Alexa users probably aren’t aware. Use an Alexa device? Try it for yourself at alexa.amazon.com.
Zoom way out and I’d love to replace the $30-$50 Echo Dots throughout my house with satellite versions of the HomePod and fully live with Siri control and not multiple voice assistants, but HomePod as a product lineup is likely years away.
For HomePod to be successful enough to warrant a family of products in the first place, Apple needs to address the newly introduced competition with an updated pitch that sells it as more than just another smart speaker that plays music.