When Apple announced HomePod at WWDC, I was thrown for a loop. After months of rumors, the Cupertino company was expected to launch some sort of Siri-focused speaker that would serve as the vanguard in an effort to elevate the digital assistant to a viable competitor for Alexa, Assistant, and Cortana.
Instead, Apple zigged when it was expected to zag — launching HomePod with a focus on music. As Apple put it onstage, its goal is nothing less than building a speaker that will “reinvent home music” in the same way that the iPod did for portable music so many years ago.
Much of Apple’s presentation was centered around this music-first approach, highlighting things like beamforming audio designed to tune music to the space the speaker is in. The fact that HomePod includes Siri support for home assistant queries like unit conversion, news, weather, traffic, sports, reminders, and timers almost seemed like an afterthought, as did the fact that it serves as a hub for controlling HomeKit-powered smart home devices.
That leaves HomePod in a weird place. On paper, it combines the great audio and multi-room music of a Sonos speaker with the smarts of an Amazon Echo or Google Home. But, while the HomePod may be able to do both of those things, Apple’s speaker is shaping up to be a jack-of-all-trades compromise that ultimately is a master of none.
Put simply: in its current state, HomePod is not competitive with Alexa or the Google Assistant. Siri, as a digital assistant, lacks the intelligence or functionality that its competitors have to offer. Siri is already considered to be one of the worst digital assistants when it comes to answering basic queries, and whether or not that’s the case, Apple has taken the puzzling approach of limiting Siri on HomePod to even less than what iOS can do.
It’s no surprise that Apple has chosen to put music as the primary sell for HomePod, because without an actual serious investment in building out Siri as a platform — which Apple seems reticent to do — there’s no way it can win from the home assistant angle.
Amazon and Google are willing to throw caution to the wind and let users put whatever they want on their Echo and Home. There are thousands of Alexa skills available for the Echo, allowing you to do everything from getting news, to checking your bank account balance, to playing Jeopardy. Google showed off Google Assistant ordering sandwiches at Panera through voice commands, and a multi-platform vision where a Chromecast works in tandem as an external display with a Google Home for visual results.
HomePod, on the other hand, limits you to the same Siri integrations that Apple has always had. Sure, there are a few new tricks when it comes to musical queries, but that’s a drop in a bucket compared to the limitless sea of potential that Amazon and Google are opening up. And even putting intelligence aside, Siri is still at a disadvantage when it comes to the basic task of voice recognition, another key part of the equation that Apple largely ignored at WWDC.
It’s especially frustrating because Apple had a huge opportunity with Siri here that it could have taken advantage of. Apple has already built the template, too, with things like the Apple Watch and iMessage applications. Why isn’t there a HomePod app, where developers can build out extensions to the apps you already have on your iPhone and activate them on your HomePod? Why can’t HomePod link to your iPhone to make FaceTime audio and phone calls, like Apple already has with the Mac?
Apple could have done what it did with the Apple Watch and leveraged its massive advantage in developer community, services, and deep, OS-level integration to turn the Amazon Echo into the Pebble of smart home speaker hubs. HomePod is great for HomeKit, serving as a payoff for anyone who’s been investing in Apple’s approved smart home gear, allowing hardware developers to deeply tie their products to Siri. Why can’t software developers do the same?
As for Apple’s narrative that the HomePod is a smart speaker first and a digital assistant second, it’s playing catch-up to more established speaker companies that have had time to build out a more mature lineup of hardware. Much like with Siri, Apple is just simply doing less than its competitors here. Sonos offers support for almost every music streaming service under the sun, along with a larger ecosystem with multiple speakers at various sizes and price points (including the ability to add non-Sonos speakers to the network).
HomePod, on the other hand, supports Apple Music, full stop, plus whatever you can stream from an iPhone over AirPlay 2. Multi-room support is limited to more $350 HomePods, or whatever AirPlay 2 speakers get released, but there doesn’t seem to be a plan for a Google Chromecast Audio or even an AirPort Extreme type of a solution to add AirPlay 2 to older speakers. Plus, as a single wireless speaker, HomePod is more expensive than any comparable product on the market, including Sonos, a company that has almost always been synonymous with pricey hardware.
The HomePod is a distillation of Apple’s approach to technology, seen in everything from iOS to Siri. It’s a “set it and forget it” product — you plug it in, and Apple’s algorithms, microphones, and APIs do the rest, tuning the sound and configuring things for you. It’s a lot like iOS, where Apple blocks users from more advanced settings like changing default applications or accessing a root file system, since the goal is to be easy to use for all users.
In many ways, the fact that HomePod has these limitations is right in line with what you’d expect from an Apple-built combination of an Echo and a Sonos. That Apple has new hardware with limited third-party development support and is exclusive to Apple’s own services isn’t really that surprising. Siri on iOS only got third-party extensions a year ago, and developer options there are still extremely limited in what Apple will allow devs to build, despite the fact that Siri beat almost every other digital assistant to market. Similarly, if Apple won’t allow you to select a different default music app on your iPhone, why would a Siri speaker be any different?
There is still a lot we don’t know about HomePod. We’re still months away from the planned December release date, and there’s a huge amount that could change between now and then. Apple could be saving an overhauled Siri to accompany an iPhone announcement, for example, or have additional HomePod products in new form factors planned for farther down the line. Price is also presumably able to change, and a $200 HomePod could be a very different proposition than a $350 one.
Right now it looks like the only way the HomePod makes sense is if you’re so deeply entrenched in Apple Music and the iOS ecosystem that Apple’s services are already the only ones you use. Given that there are millions of people for whom that situation is already the case, it’s likely the HomePod will be a successful product for Apple. It’s a play that Apple has already run with great success so far with the Apple Watch, which was able to leverage the integration with Apple’s existing hardware and software to remain one of the last viable smartwatches standing.
But the Apple Watch also showed that a tight integration with Apple’s other products isn’t quite enough — no one views the Watch as a revolutionary device that changes the way we live, like the iPhone or the iPod were. And given the tremendous potential there seems to be in smart speakers, it’s still disappointing that Apple is playing it safe with the HomePod instead of taking a chance to make something greater.