It’s crazy to think that the HomePod officially went on sale in February of 2018. Lots changes in the technology world in 24 months but so far Apple has resisted updating the HomePod and has offered only modest price cuts. The HomePod originally launched at a price point of £349/$349 and currently retails for £279/$299. Let’s take a quick look at the state of the HomePod in 2020 and consider what Apple needs to do to turn up the volume on this product category. First here’s a quick reminder of the key features.
- Packed with high performance audio tech including a high excursion sub-woofer with a customer amp and seven horn-loaded tweeters with custom amp system.
- Six direct and beam forming microphones for far-field Siri.
- Two HomePods can be used as a Stereo Pair.
- Supports Siri and Voiceover for voice commands and accessibility
- Touch surface for quick controls such as adjusting volume, invoking Siri and play/pause
- 802.11ac Wi-fi with MIMO
- Bluetooth 5.0
- Multi-room support with AirPlay 2 allowing simultaneous playback of the same audio source to all HomePod units on the same network.
- Natively supports Apple Music, iTunes Music Library, iCloud Music Library, Beats 1 live radio, Apple Podcasts.
- AirPlay any other audio source from iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Apple TV and Mac
- Support for various audio formats including HE-AAC (V1), AAC (16 to 320 Kbps), protected AAC (from iTunes Store), MP3 (16 to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, Apple Lossless, AIFF, WAV and FLAC.
- Built-in power supply, 2.5kg in weight, 6.8 inches tall, 5.6 inches wide.
The HomePod delivers a truly stunning audio experience. The sound quality is simply excellent for the size of the product. Sure the HomePod can reach very high volumes but it’s much more than that. Bass feels intense without distortion, highs are clean and crisp, details in lows are remarkable. The HomePod excels in audio performance. It can be hard to appreciate just how great the sound produced by the HomePod is without trying one in your own home. Apple designed the HomePod to be contextually aware of its surroundings and it actually adapts to the space that you put it in. The sound profile is chosen and customised to your particular space. In a store whilst it still sounds impressive, you really need to try it in your own home to appreciate just how great the audio is.
The HomePod works very well in the Apple ecosystem. If you own an Apple TV you can use it as the audio output and if you own two, you can create a really impressive stereo sound system. If you own an iPhone you can hand off the music currently playing on your iPhone to the HomePod just by holding it near the touch surface on the top of the speaker. The HomePod contains an Apple A8 chip that has been optimised to tap into Apple Music. Using Siri you can tap in to all of the features of Apple Music including live radio, curated play lists and more. Siri has great knowledge of music thanks to that integration with Apple Music.
The HomePod is a great piece of hardware. I don’t think many people have complaints about the device itself. It feels solid, robust and thoughtfully put together. The problem with the HomePod is really down to the software. Apple has tackled some of the early niggles but their is still room to go.
Siri just isn’t as smart as Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. This is in part due to under investment in AI by Apple and partly related to the companies commitment to privacy. Apple is tackling the former with big hires from companies like Google including John Giannandrea who serves as Senior Vice President of machine learning and AI strategy. The latter is a tricky problem to solve. Apple has doubled down on privacy in recent years and has fought long and hard in the battle of right to privacy vs the need for law enforcement to access the data of criminals. I personally agree with Apple on privacy, I definitely would choose privacy over fancy voice requests. That being said I’d like Apple to push the needle forward in meaningful ways with Siri by increasing the range of data sources it can access. I think we’ll see improvement in this area in the not too distant future.
Another big problem for the HomePod is that it is very much shackled to the Apple eco-system. Apple Music is a clear 2nd in the streaming music wars with Spotify having a very clear and noticeable lead. The gap is closing but by locking out the competition on HomePod, Apple has turned off a portion of potential customers and faced the heat of anti-competitive complaints and law suits from Spotify and others. Apple wants to become as much a services company as a software and hardware company. I can see why they chose to build the HomePod around Apple Music but I’m not convinced it was the right thing to do.
The other big problem with HomePod has nothing to do with the hardware or the software, rather the price. People are willing to pay for a premium experience in essential goods like smartphones and computers including tablets. Part of the reason is because these devices are critical to all of us in the modern world. It just isn’t viable to go about life without an internet connection now for the vast majority of us. I don’t think many people would argue to the contrary and that argument is pretty much settled. The Apple Watch isn’t considered an essential to many of us and yet it ships in the millions and millions. That is in part because more and more of are focusing on healthy living and something you wear becomes a reflection of your style and taste.
The HomePod sits on a shelf or a unit somewhere in your home and for most people, a speaker is quickly forgotten and blends in. That isn’t a bad thing but for something that is going to blend in and quickly be forgotten, the asking price of £349 at launch was way out of the realms of reality. Just to be clear, the hardware is amazing. The sound is truly excellent. The problem is that Amazons echo devices whilst nowhere near as good in terms of sound quality, do sound ‘good enough’. Alexa works much better than Siri in responding to questions and feels more conversational and natural. Combine that with very low prices and it isn’t hard to see why HomePod has struggled.
I don’t think Apple cares that much about the unit numbers right now. I think they care about the user experience. Often Apple goes into a product category and ends up making the most as is the case with iPad in the tablet market, the iPod in the now less relevant MP3 player market and the Apple Watch and AirPods in the booming wearables market. Sometimes they don’t make the most as is the case with iPhone and the Mac but they do make arguably the best. That strategy of making the best just hasn’t translated into the same kind of success for HomePod because competitors have been able to offer a genuinely decent experience at a much lower price. The reason I don’t think Apple cares too much though is because this product category of the future. Anybody who says otherwise is kidding themselves. Smart speakers are a nice to have, a convenience like a cordless vacuum. They aren’t essential in the same way as other categories in technology are right now and that isn’t ever going to change in the near future to mid future.
What comes next?
I think Apple will update the HomePod. I don’t think they’ll be willing to compromise on quality but they’ll have to accept lower margins and offer a diverse portfolio like they did with iPod. Perhaps a low cost HomePod Mini, a mid range HomePod and then a flagship HomePod Pro at the current price point for people that want it. I think such an update will likely ship with a future version of Siri and deeper integration with third party services. Apple in many ways can learn a lot from their own history with the iPod. The iPod didn’t become the hit that it was until Apple unshackled it from the Mac and allowed iPod to sync with windows and started offering less expensive models albeit with less bells and whistles. I have a feeling we might hear more (sorry) at WWDC 😉