HomePod—Putting Apple Music Ahead of Smart Home

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2Q 2017 | IN-4609

Apple kicked off its annual developer conference, WWDC, this year by announcing HomePod—a Wi-Fi-connected speaker that has long been rumored as the company’s response to the success of Amazon’s Alexa, and more recently, the Google Home device. Instead, the device, while having similar functionality compared to its primary competitors, was primarily pitched as a high-end, Wi-Fi, music streaming speaker with artificial intelligence (AI).

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Apple Announces an Amazon Alexa Competitor

NEWS


Apple kicked off its annual developer conference, WWDC, this year by announcing HomePod—a Wi-Fi-connected speaker that has long been rumored as the company’s response to the success of Amazon’s Alexa, and more recently, the Google Home device. Instead, the device, while having similar functionality compared to its primary competitors, was primarily pitched as a high-end, Wi-Fi, music streaming speaker with artificial intelligence (AI).  

HomePod—a Wi-Fi Speaker with AI

IMPACT


Priced at US$350, the new Apple HomePod is pitched notably higher than the US$179 Amazon Echo and the US$100 Google Home. According to the company, the round, 7-inch tall device has seven tweeters and a subwoofer, and its functionality is supported by an embedded Apple A8 chip—the same chip leveraged in iPhones. The new device is set to go on sale in December (2017) in the U.S., UK, and Australia, with other regions and markets set to roll out in 2018.

Music is streamed to the device from an associated Apple Music service and there is the same Siri AI interface that Apple users are familiar with using on a range of Apple iOS devices.

Regarding the smart home capabilities of the device, support for HomeKit and the always-on nature of the device means it can be used as a gateway for controlling HomeKit smart home devices remotely. Previously, this was a feature that was only supported by Apple TV Generation 4 devices. Like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home, all control integration appears to be via application integration in the cloud, with no support for in-home, device-to-device communication. 

Tackling Sonos More Than Amazon

COMMENTARY


The HomePod device has been pitched as a sophisticated Wi-Fi speaker rather than a smart home control device with a speaker. Far from being an Amazon Alexa killer device, Apple looks to have its sights more clearly targeted on Sonos and its established range of Wi-Fi speakers. The HomePod is pitched higher than even the most expensive Amazon Alexa device (the Echo), at US$350. It sits mid-way through Sonos speaker prices, which range from around US$100 for the Sonos Play 1 to US$500 for the Sonos Play 5.

ABI Research previously commented on Amazon and Google’s smart home AI efforts and how they bolster their wider business. While Amazon Alexa devices are geared toward helping Amazon provide more and more retail services to its subscribers, and while Google Home helps Google better target advertising to its subscribers, Apple is eager to present its efforts, prying less into its customers privacy. Apple insisted that when listening for the wake-up command Siri, no recording or data would be transferred to Apple’s cloud services. Then, when in use, all interactions with Siri on the HomePod will be encrypted and linked only to an “anonymous Siri ID” to Apple. But, that isn’t to say Apple isn’t leveraging HomePod to drive its own services. For its part, Apple is using HomePod as a support for its music streaming services. It is clearly hoping the HomePod can be for Apple Music what the iPod was to iTunes.

HomePod’s smart home voice control front-end capabilities add little to the functionality already supported in the latest generation of AppleTV, but it remains to be seen if there is work still to be done to bring greater appeal and value to the smart home aspects of the device before its launch. While Apple announced a raft of speaker manufacturers aligned to support the Apple AirPlay 2 protocol, details around the smart home application partnerships for the HomePod were not mentioned.

Apple HomePod joins a growing list of voice control fronts-ends in this strategically important market. The design and focus of the HomePod fits with Apple’s long history of delivering its own technology in yet to be mainstream categories. Its skilled design and marketing, combined with a dedicated user base, has helped promote some of the most popular consumer technologies. With the HomePod, that may be the case again, but for the smart Wi-Fi speaker market not the smart home voice control market. The announced feature set, price point, and delivery schedule does little to appeal to existing or potential Amazon or Google smart home front-end customers that aren’t devoted Apple fans. 

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