Want to know what Apple has up its sleeve as a follow-up to the HomePod? In this article we dissect the clues and rumours relating to the HomePod 2, as well as upcoming updates to the HomePod software, which continuously adds new features to existing units.
We'll discuss the likely release date of the next-gen HomePod, pricing and new features, as well as rumours that Apple will be launching a smaller and cheaper version of its smart speaker called a HomePod mini.
HomePod 2: Release date
The HomePod was announced way back in June 2017 at WWDC, and then wasn't launched until February 2018. Still, that's well over 18 months ago, so it's feasible to expect a follow-up model soon. Indeed the iPhone 11 Pro event (on 10 September 2019) seemed a likely occasion for an unveiling, but there was no HomePod news to be had.
The HomePod is already very powerful, leading to the question: does Apple really need to make any technical changes to its smart speaker? Software updates have already improved the HomePod, and iOS 13 has brought even more software-powered features.
We remain optimistic about a hardware update, but this may have to wait until spring 2020. Apple could host a music-themed event and launch a new HomePod alongside new AirPods and its rumoured over-ear headphones. We could even see the AR headset which may or may not be in the pipeline.
HomePod mini rumours
It may not, in fact, be a new HomePod that arrives, but instead a cheaper HomePod.
A price drop to the existing model in April 2019 is thought to indicate that the HomePod hasn't been selling as well as Apple hoped.
The underwhelming sales have led to speculation that Apple will launch a cheaper HomePod speaker. With competition coming from low-cost offerings from Google and Amazon, will Apple bring its smart speaker to the masses? We discuss rumours about the HomePod mini below.
HomePod 2: Price
The first-gen HomePod was £319/$349 but in April 2019 was reduced to £279/$299. (You can buy it direct from Apple here.)
Ordinarily we would expect version 2 of an Apple product to cost roughly the same, the natural lowering of production and materials costs over time being offset by the increased costs of the upgraded components. But the rumour mill would have it otherwise, and predicts that we'll get a significantly cheaper HomePod in 2019.
We would like to see a range of HomePods launch with prices as follows:
- HomePod mini: £79/$99
- HomePod: £179/$199
- HomePod Max: £279/$299
Given that Apple has launched similar ranges in the past - e.g. the iPod nano, iPod mini, iPod classic, iPod touch - we think that there is a chance that Apple will grant us our wish.
Calls for Apple to introduce a cheaper HomePod began in 2018, with a March 2018 Economic Daily News report. That report was backed up Rosenblatt analyst Jun Zhang (as per this report on Barrons) who claimed that a new HomePod would have a price tag of between $150 and $200, roughly half the price of the current model. On that basis UK pricing of around £160 seems plausible.
In April 2018, then-KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said he thought that one of the reasons why the first-gen HomePod wasn't selling well was its high price, which, he said, "could undermine demand despite excellent sound quality".
A further report from May 2018 (translated from the Chinese here) suggested that the successor to the original HomePod will cost $199 (approximately £147).
These calls for a lower priced device were answered in April 2019 when Apple dropped the price of the HomePod, but a cheaper device didn't launch as those reports had predicted. Does that mean that Apple won't introduce a cheaper HomePod model?
According to Bloomberg sources, back in June 2018 Apple was working on a new version of the HomePod for 2019 that would launch alongside new AirPods and new over-the-ear Apple headphones in the spring. We've already seen the new AirPods, but no new HomePod has been announced, as yet. It still could.
A Barclays analyst who released a report in August 2018 also thinks Apple will release a new HomePod in 2019. Barclays analyst Blayne Curtis believes Apple will launch a "cheaper HomePod in 2019," and that it will have "broader appeal." He thinks that HomePod sales have been "underwhelming" with less than 5 million sold so far.
Apparently, by the end of 2019 207.9 million smart speakers will be installed in homes around the world and by 2021 smart speakers will overtake tablets in prevalence with a 500 million install base. This is according to Canalys, which published its forecast in April 2019.
There's potential for Apple here, but the company seems to have fallen at the first hurdle when it comes to the smart speaker market. In autumn 2018, Canalys estimated that Apple had six percent of the smart speaker market in the US, having sold over a million units by mid 2018. In comparison, Amazon had shipped more than 100 million Alexa-enabled devices. Amazon's Echo speakers account for 70 percent of the US market, Google Home accounts for 24 percent.
Apple arrived late to the smart speaker market. This hasn't stopped Apple from transforming and taking over a market in the past (in the case of the iPod and the iPhone). But in the case of the HomePod the product came late to the market, at a high price, and, despite excellent sound quality, due to various problems was never really going to appeal to anyone other than die-hard Apple fans. Not a great combination.
It should be noted that if you ignore the low-end of the smart speaker market, the HomePod's market share is more comparable to the premium versions of Amazon and Google's speakers. Apple's generally happy at the premium end of the market, it doesn't tend to make 'cheap' products. However, just as it did with the iPod and the iPhone, it may be time to start offering cheaper options.
More than 50% of Amazon Echo and Google Home devices that have been sold are the low-cost models, sold for less than $100. In fact, Deloitte has said the average selling price of smart speakers will be $43 in 2019.
Apple needs a low-cost HomePod offering or its impact on this market will be minimal. It seems that few people want to buy a high-end speaker, caring less about sound quality and more about the other features of a smart speaker - with a low price being the biggest draw of all.
Another reason why people want a low cost option, some people want a speaker in more than one room, others want stereo sound. Apparently about one-third of both Amazon Echo and Google Home users have multiple units, according to this CNBC report. The HomePod is already expensive, very few people will be able to afford two.
Clearly, there is a huge market for low-grade, low-cost smart speakers. Apple is not addressing this. It's time it did. Not least because with services, such as Apple Music, becoming of great importance to Apple the HomePod could be a big part of that drive.
HomePod 2: Design
The new HomePod 2 could be smaller than the current model as well as being cheaper - a HomePod Mini perhaps. A report on Japanese site Mac Otakara in March 2018 suggested that the new speaker will be smaller. (Read the translation here.)
An entry-level option could be provided by Apple-owned Beats. A new Beats Pill speaker that offered AirPlay 2 and support Siri could allow Apple to address this market via their subsidiary.
In May 2018, the Chinese Sina report, mentioned above, suggested that Apple would launch a smaller, cheaper smart speaker, but that rather than being launched as a new Apple 'HomePod', the new model will have Beats branding.
By launching a Beats smart speaker, powered by Siri, Apple could potentially appeal to a different part of the market for smart speakers. The Beats brand traditionally has a younger, fashionable following. A lower price may also appeal more to this market.
HomePod 2: New features
It's likely that a cheaper HomePod would keep the same kind of design language, but would be smaller and less powerful - there would be less room for the current seven-tweeter array, for example.
The cheaper HomePod may also lack some of the tech included in the current model, tech that can tell if the HomePod is moved, and direct sound according to its location, for example. There may be fewer microphones, so voice-recognition may not be as good.
This lack of features may be a problem, though. When the HomePod launched it was criticised for lacking some features its smart speaker competition offered, and for the limitations of Siri (although if you read our comparison of HomePod, Amazon Echo & Google Home you will see the difference isn't really that stark).
However, the HomePod software was updated at the same time as iOS 12 launched on 17 September 2018 and that update bought new functionality to the smart speaker. And in September 2019 iOS 13 brings still more new features, including voice recognition.
Following the iOS 12 update HomePod can:
- Place phone calls directly from the HomePod (rather than having to make or take a call on an iPhone and hand it over to the HomePod).
- Listen to voice mails on the HomePod.
- Ask the HomePod to Find My iPhone and get it to play a sound on that device (or any other Apple device you have set up for the service).
- Set more than one timer.
- Change the Wi-Fi network the HomePod is connected to.
- There will be improved language support.
- The HomePod will be able to relay the audio from group FaceTime calls (once group FaceTime arrives).
- Search for songs by Lyrics.
- Trigger Siri Shortcuts via the HomePod.
Following the iOS 13 update HomePod can:
- Recognise your voice - and the voices of up to six HomePod users - and only reveal private information to you.
- Support multiple users, so that more than one person's Apple ID can be tied to a HomePod for tailored music and customised responses.
- Use Handoff to transfer what you are listening to on your iPhone to the HomePod just by bringing your iPhone close to the HomePod.
- Integrate with the Shortcuts app in iOS 13 for better automation within 'Scenes'.
- Play live radio stations.
Read on to find out what other features could arrive with a new HomePod.
It's pretty much universally acknowledged that the HomePod is an excellent speaker. But its credentials as a smart speaker got a more mixed reception, with Siri's capabilities compared unfavourably to the Google Assistant and Alexa voice assistants in rival products.
For this reason the main upgrade we are expecting - and hoping for - in the new HomePod is a more ambitious array of voice commands and features. (Here are the things you can ask Siri on the HomePod.)
Many reviewers had pointed out how dangerous it as that you can't set up multiple accounts with separate recognised voices. Logically you'd want the HomePod to hear and recognise your child's voice and allow limited commands (such as playing songs), then also hear and recognise familiar adult voices and allow more advanced functions such as reading out and sending text messages. Luckily that functionality is a new feature of iOS 13.
Another factor affecting the desirability of HomePod, noted by KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo (via a MacRumors report), was the lack of additional language versions of Siri. This offering has improved over the years and months, with a Japanese language version appearing prior to the Japanese launch of HomePod in the summer of 2019.
At the time (April 2018), Kuo noted the lack of additional language versions of Siri and suggests that Apple is "facing challenges in AI/voice assistant development spanning the globe". Something that "will cap the shipments momentum of HomePod".
Kuo believed that if Apple is to compete with Amazon and Google in the smart speaker market, Apple needs to improve Siri's capabilities and increase language support.
Finally, it's a tremendous limitation that HomePod's Siri controls are not compatible with a wider range of music streaming services. Full Spotify support, for instance, is a must, although you can currently use AirPlay to stream from Spotify. The addition of Apple Music playback to Alexa does little to help sell the HomePod.
This has been one of the biggest problems with the HomePod, and again, this is a new feature in iOS 13.
Given that the HomePod is a speaker it is reasonable to expect it to be used communally. If the HomePod is placed in the living room or kitchen, for example, a number of people are able to access it. This is a problem because one of the features of the HomePod is being able to access your personal information including text messages, emails, and calendar. You might not have anything to hide, but equally, you might not want the kids to send a text to your boss.
This is why the HomePod needs some kind of multi-user support, and Apple is working on solutions for this.
Apple has applied for patents for technology relating to this. In one such solution, Siri could learn your voice and have a voice print based on pronunciation and other factors that produce a signature.
Another solution that was detailed in an April 2019 patent application, here, would be for the HomePod to check to see if the iPhone relating to that user is nearby, and if it is that device could be used to approve the request. This seems like an extra step that will frustrate anyone who is speaking a command to their HomePod in order to avoid having to use their iPhone - which is probably the main reason such commands are available.
Another potential feature for a next-generation HomePod could be facial recognition, something that's been predicted for a couple of years.
The president of the company that is building HomePod smart speakers for Apple said back in November 2017 that he believes that future models could offer this.
Inventec Appliances president David Ho said: "Engineers are designing smart speakers that will not only come with voice recognition but also incorporate features such as facial and image recognition. Such AI-related features are set to make people's lives more convenient and to make the product easier to use."
A version of the HomePod firmware released earlier in 2017 referenced facial recognition features, but the feature didn't arrive in the first-generation model.
Hand gestures, gesture controls
This relates to the above: thanks to face-sensing technologies built in to the HomePod the device could recognise gestures from afar. So you could indicate that the volume should increase with a wave, or stop a track by holding up your hand.
Yuanta Investment Consulting analyst Jeff Pu said in November 2017 that he expects Apple to roll out HomePods with 3D-sensing cameras in 2019.
It's no surprise that Apple would attempt to build in such technology. The company bought PrimeSense back in 2013, the company behind the body-movement tracking technology originally used in the Xbox 360.
A patent application filed in 2017, but only made public in January 2019 makes it clear that Apple is looking at such technology for the smart speaker.
The patent application, which is attributed to Apple, describes a "countertop speaker" that is able to "identify users in the vicinity of the speaker using facial recognition, as well as measure the distance of users [in relation] to the speaker".
The speaker would also use "various sensors and cameras that gather hand gestures and other three-dimensional gesture input."
In addition, LEDs in the fabric of the speaker would be able to give visual feedback to hand gestures as well as "display alphanumeric characters through the fabric that change depending on time of day" (the latter could indicate that a clock face could be shown).
The HomePod is already a great-sounding speaker, so the idea that Apple should improve the audio further might seem unnecessary.
When Apple launched HomePod it emphasised audio quality as the main differentiator between HomePod and the competition, but now the competition also offers better audio quality. With Sonos now in the picture, more emphasis on audio quality from Google, and reports that Amazon is focusing on better sound quality with the new Echo, as per this Bloomberg report.
Stereo sound improvements
The HomePod is capable of creating pretty amazing sound because of the way it can analyse its surroundings and pump out the music accordingly - for example, if there's a wall right behind it, the speaker can account for that. It's even better if you buy two of them, because you can set them up as a stereo pair, but the price is so high that most people won't be able to do that.
Apparently Apple is working on tech that will make it possible for a single HomePod to create the effect of stereo sound, not just for one person, but for all the people in the room. It will direct sound at each person so that they each get the appropriate channel. An Apple Insider report from April 2019 says multiple people will be able to "experience a stereo audio effect, regardless of where they are seated".
In the future, the HomePod could even detect when the last person leaves the room and turn off the music.
The HomePod can connect to your iPhone so you can use it to play music even if you aren't on the same network (read about how to play music on your HomePod with no Wi-Fi) but if you aren't using an Apple device you are out of luck as the HomePod doesn't support devices connecting via Bluetooth - despite being equipped with the necessary Bluetooth components.
Bluetooth support would widen the HomePod's appeal beyond iPhone users. Those who want to use their Android phone with a HomePod could do so.
Wondering how the HomePod compares to the competition? We've compared the HomePod to the other smart speakers out there in our roundup of the best smart speakers.