The HomePod has been on sale for more than two years and it's been three years since Apple first revealed its plans to get into the smartspeaker market. In that time Apple has issued a series of software updates improving the functionality of the device, but it has made little headway in the smart home audio devices.
We expected Apple's WWDC 2020 keynote and its September event would change the story, but Apple remained silent on the HomePod 2 or any related developments aside from revealing that HomePod will gain a few new features in iOS 14 (including better Spotify integration). Read about what HomePod can do here.
Despite its reticence, Apple might update the HomePod soon, with a report claiming that work on a new HomePod continues from home despite the Coronavirus lockdown.
So what might Apple do to improve the HomePod for the second generation, and what can the company do to take on the well established competition?
In this article we'll look at the rumours about the next generation HomePod, from claims that there might be a HomePod mini in the works and details of HomePod-related patents that have been granted to Apple.
We'll also investigate whether there will be a cheaper HomePod Mini and look at the new features that could be coming in updates to the HomePod software, which continuously adds new features to existing units.
We'll start by discussing the likely release date of the next-gen HomePod.
HomePod 2: Release date & availability
The HomePod was announced three years ago in June 2017 at WWDC, although it didn't go on sale until February 2018. Updates to the device remained unnannounced at WWDC 2020, however.
Developments are likely in the pipeline despite Apple's silence on the matter. Bloomberg reported on the 30 March 2020 that: "The company is working on new versions of the HomePod speaker, Apple TV set-top box [and other new products]" despite the Coronavirus lockdown meaning that staff were having to do the highly secretive work from home.
Then again, on 13 April, Bloomberg revealed that according to "people familiar with the plans," Apple is planning to release a smaller and cheaper HomePod this year.
Another indication that something is coming soon is the fact that resellers are heavily discounting the HomePod right now (to £199/$199), and Apple itself is allowing staff to buy as many as 10 cut-price HomePods ($149.50 each). It certainly looks like the company is clearing old stock in preparation for new models.
But there has also been speculation that Apple might discontinue the HomePod. The company doesn't seem to have given its smart speaker a lot of love. For example, the HomePod has been on sale for more than two years and it's not even available everywhere yet. You can buy one in United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, Mexico, China, Hong Kong, Japan, and Taiwan. The HomePod also went on sale in India in January 2020.
There are many places where you still can't buy a HomePod. Perhaps Apple's reasoning is the need for local language versions of Siri.
With HomePod not having made headway in all four corners of the globe it certainly looks like it's not a priority for Apple. But, we are still optimistic that a new version of the HomePod will arrive in 2020. Possibly alongside the rumoured over-ear AirPods Studio headphones.
HomePod 2: Price
As we mentioned above, the 13 April Bloomberg report suggested that Apple is gearing up to to release a smaller and cheaper HomePod this year. We think a cheaper HomePod is something Apple has needed for a long time.
Apple's competition in this market - Amazon and Google - have similarly priced high-end speakers that are comparable to the HomePod, but they also have low cost speakers that start at just £49.99/$49.99 for the Echo Dot (which is often on offer for £29.99).
While some people are prepared to pay more for high-quality audio not everyone is prepared to spend a lot of money - and many people are oblivious to the difference in sound quality and a £50 speaker is more than sufficient.
When you consider that there are speakers that are more than adequate for most people it is no surprise that Apple's HomePod isn't taking the world by storm. When Apple launched the HomePod it cost a staggering £319/$349. While there are similarly-priced speakers from Amazon and Google they aren't as popular as the cheaper options those companies make.
Apple did make an attempt to address the issue when back in April 2019 it reduced the price of HomePod so it now costs £279/$299 (You can buy it direct from Apple here and now various resellers are discounting it to £199/$199).
The initial price cut was likely a response to poor sales, but it seems that the lower price hasn't helped Apple sell many more.
We think the answer is simple, if Apple wants to make any noise in this market it needs to introduce a low-cost answer. It won't be the first time it's done this. From the iPod to the iPad Apple has always eventually introduced an entry-level model to appease the masses.
With one exception: Apple's AirPods are incredibly popular and lead the market for that category of headphones. They aren't cheap and Apple has introduced the even more expensive AirPods Pro.
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.
HomePod 2: Design
Will the new HomePod look like the current HomePod? Will it be smaller? Will there be different colours available?
A smaller HomePod
In its 13 April report, Bloomberg revealed that according to "people familiar with the plans," Apple is planning to release a smaller and cheaper HomePod this year.
It seems that this HomePod will be half the size of the original, with the same design.
A Beats HomePod
Alternatively, 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.
There are images associated with Apple patents that indicate that while the next HomePod could look similar to the current HomePod, there could be some new functionality buried beneath the woven fabric.
In a patent application filed back in 2019, but published on 5 March 2020, Apple details plans for a "Fabric-Covered Electronic Device with Touch Sensor" that looks like a HomePod.
The patent describes how "conductive strands" could be woven within the fabric cover to detect presses, via Patently Apple.
Parts of the next generation speaker could also light up to display play/pause buttons and other information. This image illustrates how those buttons could appear on the new HomePod.
HomePod 2: New features
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: iOS 13 brought even more software-powered features including the ability for Siri on the HomePod to recognise your voice (we cover how to set up HomePod to recognise your voice here). iOS 14 will bring the option to choose a third-party music streaming service, such as Spotify, as your default, and improved integration with the Apple TV and HomeKit. Read about what HomePod can do here.
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.
- Play new Ambient sounds.
We look at what the HomePod can do here.
Read on to find out what new features could arrive with a new HomePod.
Third-party music support
Currently it is possible to stream third-party music services to the HomePod from an iPhone using AirPlay, but the company is said to be planning to allow third-party music services to run on the HomePod. (Here's how to use AirPlay to stream from Spotify to HomePod.)
The claims come via a Bloomberg report from February 2020. Bloomberg's Mark Gurman, citing people familiar with the matter, claimed the Apple is deliberating making it easier for customers to stream Spotify and other third-party services on Apple's smart speaker.
Bloomberg suggests that the changes could come as part of the iOS 14 rollout.
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.)
One 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.
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.
Improved multi-user support
This was one of the biggest problems with the HomePod, and it was a new feature in iOS 13. However, it still needs some improvement, with set up being complicated.
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).
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.
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.
Calls for a cheaper HomePod
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 that spring. We've already seen the new AirPods, but no new HomePod has been announced, as yet.
A Barclays analyst who released a report in August 2018 also thought Apple would release a new HomePod in 2019. Barclays analyst Blayne Curtis said that Apple would launch a "cheaper HomePod in 2019," and that it will have "broader appeal." He noted that HomePod sales have been "underwhelming" with less than 5 million sold so far.