Apple’s HomePod was recently discontinued. The incredible audio experience was not enough to persuade consumers to shell out the cash to integrate it into their home. Instead Apple is focusing on the HomePod Mini as photographed above. But what’s really going on here? Is Apple’s home strategy in trouble? Let’s examine in a bit more detail.
The smart speaker category is a hotly contested space. Amazon dominates the market with the affordable echo range and backed by a reliable and well supported assistant with Alexa. Alexa integration can be found in just about any smart home product. The echo range starts with the fourth generation echo dot for just £39 in the UK. Other models include the echo dot with clock for £59 and the Echo Studio for £189. The latter claiming to offer much higher fidelity audio than it’s little sibling. Then of course Amazon also offer the Echo Show which integrates the smart speaker with a display and comes in various models.
Google also ship a competitive range of smart speakers called ‘Google Nest’ with Google Assistant built in. On sale the entry level model, the Nest Mini sells for £34 in the UK with an RRP of £49. It offers a very affordable way to control your smart home and access voice assistant features. If you want bigger sound, for £79.99 you can get the Nest Audio. A larger speaker with more space for internals that enable bigger sound. And much like Amazon, Google also offers the Nest range with screens, the Nest Hub for £89 and the Next Hub Max for £189 with an even larger display and a larger speaker.
Amazon and Google are Apple’s biggest competitors in this space. And both firms offer much more affordable products when compared to the HomePod at £279. Now it’s true that Apple recently introduced the HomePod Mini for just £99 and yet that is still more expensive than Google’s high end smart speaker (without screen), the Nest Audio. The HomePod Mini seems to be thriving according to recent reports but the full size HomePod just never took off. Price is definitely a factor but I think it goes beyond just price. Apple ships many products at a premium when compared to the competition so price alone doesn’t explain the lack of success for the HomePod.
You’re categorising it wrong
My theory is this. The HomePod was never intended to be a ‘smart speaker’. It was intended for an incredible audio experience that could be placed anywhere in your home. The voice control functionality was an intentional design to enable contactless control without the need for a remote. The smart speaker functionality such as asking questions about the weather, your calendar and so forth were secondary priorities. And the HomePod was in development for several years before it was released. During that development cycle, the competition released swathes of smart speakers and capitalised on the popularity of voice assistants built into our phones.
Unfortunately for Apple, in this case, those competing products may not have offered similar audio quality but they did offer an excellent assistant experience. And the price points set an expectation with consumers. This was a case of the first to market, leads the market. Apple is never about being first, but about best and shipping quality products that people love. And the HomePod really is an excellent product. But the sound quality is impossible to perceive on paper. Even in a store if you managed to get a demo of the product you couldn’t get a true sense of how good the sound was. Not when stores are filled with a ton of background noise from shoppers, workers and other demo products. So that unique selling point was never able to be experienced properly by most folks in the market for a smart speaker.
I think had Apple launched the HomePod before competing products shipped, it would have sold far better. And word of mouth from those early adopters who appreciated the sound quality would have spread more readily. Certainly with less noise from the competition to drown out their voice. I don’t think Apple saw the HomePod as a smart speaker. And perhaps that combined with the late entry into the market is why it flopped. Tellingly Apple used the term ‘smart speaker’ repeatedly during the recent unveiling of the HomePod mini. The term was barely uttered during the original HomePod unveiling.
The HomePod’s failure was a product of Apple’s late go to market, lack of easily demonstrable unique selling points and a price point that made it a laughing stock. At least when compared to competing products. And yet the HomePod Mini clearly shows the appetite for a compelling smart speaker from Apple exists. I just hope that Apple doesn’t give up on this space, that they go back to the drawing board and release a killer product with the amazing audio HomePod is known for but at a more affordable price. And with compelling features to match. Let’s wait and see.