“Hey Siri, why should I buy a HomePod?”
If you were to ask that question a few months ago, the answer may have been more clear. When Apple unveiled its $349 Siri-equipped HomePod speaker in June, it was poised to fill a big hole in the smart speaker market. While the Amazon Echo and Google Home were pretty good at answering questions, they wouldn’t blow anybody away when it came to audio quality. Apple, then, pitched its smart speaker as a piece of high-end audio gear aimed at music aficionados, with Siri on board as a bonus.
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But the HomePod, which finally starts shipping this week, was delayed for several months. That’s an eon in the fast-moving gadget world, and much has changed since Apple first revealed the device. There are now several other smart speakers with high-end audio quality on the market, including Google’s Home Max, which uses the Google Assistant, and the Sonos One, which has Amazon Alexa and is set to get Google’s software later this year. Like the HomePod, both devices aim to provide audiophile-worthy sound quality along with a voice-activated assistant, making it tougher for the HomePod to stand out. Other third-party companies that specialize in high-end audio gear, like Altec Lansing and Bang & Olufsen, also have plans to release new Google Assistant-enabled speakers.
The HomePod may prove to sound even better than rival devices; early reviews are indeed positive in that department. But those same reviews offer shoppers plenty of reasons to hold off on the HomePod, too. Most crucially, its version of Siri isn’t yet as useful as the incarnation on your iPhone. It’s also optimized for Apple’s own services. If you prefer Spotify to Apple Music, for instance, you’ll have to use AirPlay to stream music through the HomePod. It can’t identify users by voice, like the Amazon Echo and Google Home can. It can’t tell you about upcoming events on your calendar, as BuzzFeed notes, and it can’t make phone calls for you (though it does work as a speakerphone if you’ve already made a call on your iPhone.) The HomePod is also limited when it comes to serving as a kitchen assistant, per reviews in The Verge and The Wall Street Journal. Early indications overall suggest that, while the HomePod may sound great, it comes up short in the software department.
That could be a big problem for an expensive device that’s entering a crowded market with plenty of options. Apple’s rivals are offering more variety in smart speakers than ever before, and typically at cheaper prices, too. Amazon, in particular, has a wide array of Echo devices, from the $39.99 hockey puck-sized Echo Dot to the $179.99 touchscreen-touting Echo Show. None of them offer truly life-changing sound quality, but the audience of diehard audiophiles is likely far smaller than the number of people who are just curious enough about smart speakers to drop $40 on one.
Apple has been down this road before. Gadgets like the iPad and the Apple Watch were panned by critics as overly expensive and not very useful. Despite early uncertainty around those devices, Apple has emerged as the top vendor in both the tablet and wearable tech markets, according to data from IDC and Canalys. That the HomePod sounds fantastic and that it works seamlessly with Apple services like Apple Music, HomeKit and so on may be enough for many, especially die-hard Apple fans. Apple Music alone now has 36 million paid users worldwide, according to The Wall Street Journal, a sizable potential audience that wouldn’t much care whether the HomePod plays nice with Spotify.
But the HomePod faces a challenge that few of Apple’s previous category-defining hits had to overcome. Tablets and smartwatches, for instance, weren’t very popular with mainstream consumers before the iPad and Apple Watch came out. But, thanks largely to the Amazon Echo and Google Home, 39 million Americans already own a smart speaker, according to research from NPR and Edison Research. They have permeated pop culture, too, with Alexa appearances in a South Park episode and a Saturday Night Live spoof. That means it’s too late for Apple to create or define this gadget category the way it so often does. With the HomePod, the company will have to prove that it can compete in a game for which somebody else wrote the rules. Not even Siri can answer whether that will be possible.