- Reuters/Stephen Lam
- The reviews of Apple’s HomePod speaker suggest that Apple has made a product that focuses on sound and not on smart features, which are barely present.
- This means that HomePod is not directly competing with products like Google Home and the Amazon Echo, which are built on a fundamentally different idea and with different aims.
- By choosing to distance itself, Apple is taking a big bet. The question is whether it’s doing it because it believes it or if it simply has to.
On February 9, Apple will launch the HomePod, its first smart speaker. Some publications, YouTubers, and tech-focused blogs have had the chance to try it beforehand, however, and the reviews are almost all saying the same thing: The HomePod is a great speaker that doesn’t really focus on being “smart.”
Coming from Apple, this shouldn’t be a big surprise. The HomePod is a product, like the dozens the firm has built and sold before it, that touts its design and engineering more than any other feature. It’s a music accessory.
Apple is explicitly advertising the HomePod as a sound-focused device – it sits under the “Music” tab on its website, and its tagline is “The new sound of home.” It also just happens to feature Siri for some added, voice-based functionalities.
Because of this, the HomePod is significantly distancing itself from its main competitors, the Amazon Echo and Google Home families of devices. Apple is willingly sitting out of the smart speaker race.
This is a rather interesting choice, and a significant one. It’s not just noteworthy within the smart speaker race, but also because it paints a larger picture of the tech landscape, and more specifically Apple’s role in it.
The Echo and Home families from Amazon and Google are fundamentally different in nature to the HomePod
The HomePod is a good product that does something very well – playing music – but the Amazon Echo and Google Home products are instruments that serve a larger purpose in their respective companies’ visions.
The logic is straightforward: Amazon and Google are betting big on artificial intelligence (AI) as the single most important, company-wide technology; to fuel AI, you need data; to gather that data, you need a device like Google Home or the Amazon Echo.
The Amazon Echo and Google Home, apart from being standalone products, exist because of their ability to collect data, which in turn will power the technologies of tomorrow; whether they are at the heart of smartphones, tablets, TVs, computers, augmented reality glasses, or indeed smart speakers.
In this vision, the Amazon Echo and Google Home serve two larger purposes: Getting customers used to a voice-based user interface, away from the smartphone’s screen, and hoarding as much data as possible to make their artificial intelligence smarter (which in turn means that Alexa and Google Assistant work better than Siri).
But Apple seems to be completely detached from this logic.
- Justin Sullivan/Getty
Apple is still The iPhone Company, and while its efforts to grow in other areas – most notably the services arm, where Apple Music lives – are noteworthy, the HomePod inevitably feels more like an appendix than anything else.
Apple still makes its fortune from the iPhone, and it doesn’t have any other source of income that comes even close to that. So of course the HomePod inevitably becomes an accessory, another part of its iPhone-centric ecosystem: It’s there to help the iPhone machine grow, or at least to keep people inside the ecosystem.
It’s not too different in scope than, say, the Apple Watch. It likely won’t replace the iPhone as the centerpiece of Apple’s profit machine, and it doesn’t serve any other larger purpose in Apple’s scheme either, like the Amazon Echo and Google Home do.
Did Apple choose to make the HomePod as it is, or was it somehow forced to?
So here’s the question: Did Apple build the HomePod as it is because that’s what it’s always meant and wanted to do, or is the device less Siri-centric than it arguably should be because Apple realised from the start that Siri couldn’t compete with the Echo or Google’s Home devices?
The second explanation would make more sense: Siri is far behind both Alexa and Google Assistant, so a device that’s primarily built around that couldn’t really be competitive. That’s why Apple focused on what it does best: Making a great product and giving it a specific focus, in this case sound quality.
If Apple deliberately chose to make the HomePod as just an iPhone accessory, it’s strange that it hasn’t taken the chance to show Siri off, although the product might work as it is. If instead Apple simply couldn’t make a device that’s actually competitive on the premise of an inferior artificial intelligence, that spells trouble.
AI assistants are most prominent in smart speakers now, but they will likely invade all sorts of devices in the near future. If Apple can’t make its own products better through Siri and AI, that might become a bigger problem – especially if the smartphone in general (and the iPhone in particular) keeps losing its centrality.
Apple may be making a big bet on the importance of AI and digital assistant
There is another possibility, and that’s that Apple simply believes that voice assistants – and therefore smart speakers – are a fad that’s going to remain irrelevant or even go away, and are therefore not worth putting much effort into.
Apple might simply believe it will keep being The iPhone Company for a long time, and each new accessory will do its job of fueling that machine, in a world where artificial intelligence is important but not as crucial as Amazon and Google are willing to bet.
With the HomePod, its current answer, Apple may be taking such a position, or simply trying to put the focus on music as a fallback. To consumers, the HomePod will live inside the limbo of this unanswered question – one perhaps not even Apple knows the answer to.