In general I’m pretty excited about smart speakers and voice assistants, but I’m not sure what to make of HomePod, Apple’s newly announced entry into this category. It won’t be out until December and relatively little information has been released about it. In particular there’s not a lot of detail on whether it will have a rich ecosystem of apps or third-party integrations, which has thus far been a somewhat useful measuring stick for Amazon Echo and Google Home.
However, I do think that Apple has gotten at least one thing right: the fact that Echo and Home have somewhat oversold the idea of these devices as assistants that can do anything for you. It’s true there are thousands of skills available for Echo but that is a red herring as most of them are useless and/or abandoned. This article at Recode claims that even if a user discovers a skill and enables it, “there’s only a three percent chance, on average, that the person will be an active user by week two.” And if you look carefully at the weekly emails that Amazon and Google send out touting their products’ newly added capabilities (I own both so I get both), you’ll immediately notice a pattern: most of these incremental “skills” boil down to voice-based searches that aren’t exactly earth-shattering (e.g., “Tell me what time ‘Better Call Saul’ is on”).
The truth is that what these devices are best at is playing music from streaming music services. In my experience, this is far and away the most valuable task that they can complete reliably. In fact, you might argue that music is all that Amazon Echo and Google Home are good for.
I’m not sure if Apple would go as far as that, but the apparently extensive engineering that they’ve invested in making HomePod a serious music device shows us that, at the very least, they understand how essential it is to get that one use case right, to hit it out of the park, even. I think that’s smart.
What I’m less sure is smart, however, is HomePod’s relatively rich price point of US$349. Most people compare that to the ~US$150 price point of the fully fledged Echo and Home devices—and of course the even cheaper Echo Dots—and feel that Apple has missed the mark in a pretty bad way. They may be right; I do worry that at that price point most consumers will take a pass on HomePod. But then again we’ve had this conversation almost every time Apple releases a new product line, whether it was the iPod, iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch etc. Apple products are always more expensive, sometimes surprisingly so, and yet they tend to succeed nevertheless.
My belief is that these voice assistants are still at the “Palm Pilot” stage of their evolution. That is, they’re better and more useful than the first iterations of their products—you could say Sonos speakers are the Star-TAC to Echo’s Palm Pilot. But they’re not that much better, and it will take an iPhone-like breakthrough to really demonstrate their potential.
As of now I can’t be sure if HomePod is that breakthrough or not. What throws me more than anything is that I had anticipated that Apple’s speaker would come with a screen because in my estimation, tying in a visual interface to the voice UX is critical for making these devices truly useful. I was genuinely surprised that HomePod lacked this but then I considered that perhaps Apple is counting on the screens that we already own and that they already dominate. Imagine issuing a Siri command to HomePod and getting a corresponding visual interface on your iPhone, Apple Watch and/or your television (with an Apple TV attached). These devices could instantaneously switch into “Siri mode,” providing truly rich responses to what users input by voice. That sounds incredibly powerful and like a brilliant way of reinforcing the ecosystem that Apple has already built in our homes and lives. It’s the kind of thing that no other company could do, which tends to be a leading indicator of when Apple succeeds. We’ll see, though; I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a HomePod later this year.