Smart speakers are rapidly finding a spot in homes around the world, probably helped by the regular discounts on Amazon (as I write this an Echo Dot is just £29.99). It’s a growing market, but speaking as someone who regularly gets frustrated with Alexa’s inability to understand my commands, it feels like a market ripe for reinvention.
If Apple hadn’t already attempted to take on the smart speaker market with the HomePod this is where I’d be expecting Apple to come in and surprise us all by producing a product that addressed all the issues and problems with the existing products (as it did with the iPod, and the iPhone, and the Mac, and almost every other product Apple has marketed).
But Apple’s already made its entry to the smart speaker market and unfortunately it didn’t solve a single problem: Siri is just as frustrating to use as the other AI assistants, the price is higher than the majority of people (Apple fans included) are prepared to pay (despite Apple dropping the price), and there are still limitations related to the music you can play and other functions people expect from a smart speaker.
It’s not that we are saying HomePod is a complete failure. HomePod’s always been an excellent speaker and its functionality has improved over time with software updates so that it can now do more than it could at launch. But it’s just not set the smart speaker industry on fire.
So what should Apple do about HomePod?
Should it cancel the HomePod project and focus its attention elsewhere?
If it does the HomePod will still have lasted longer than the iPod HiFi (pictured below) which, when it launched in 2006, lasted a year before Apple discontinued it. I think it would be a shame to see Apple turn its back on an emerging industry that is ripe for reinvention just because it made an initial misstep.
Should Apple reduce the price?
Apple’s already dropped the price once. When HomePod launched it cost £319/$349, but back in April 2019 Apple reduced the price so it now costs £279/$299. While the competition has similarly priced high-end speakers they also have low cost speakers. Speaking of which…
Should Apple launch a cheaper HomePod mini?
Amazon leads the smart speaker market with a speaker that starts at just £49.99/$49.99 (and at the time of writing the Echo Dot was on offer for £29.99). For the vast majority of people the budget for a speaker would probably be less that £100/$100 and Apple has nothing in this category. This wouldn’t be the first time Apple made such a move. The iPod was followed by the cheaper iPod mini and eventually the iPod shuffle. The iPhone 5c was a cheaper version of the iPhone, eventually succeeded by the iPhone SE and soon, the rumours indicate, a new iPhone.
Should Apple compromise on audio quality then?
The HomePod was praised for its exceptional audio quality, but not everyone cares about audio quality or can even tell if a speaker is good or not. Most people don’t care that the HomePod has a seven tweeter array, each tweeter having its own driver. They probably don’t even know what a 4in upwards-facing woofer is. As for the audiophiles (who Apple was, we assume, trying to entice with the HomePod) many complain about the lack of advanced features (such as EQ) and criticise the fact that since you can’t get true stereo out of one speaker they might as well just buy an Echo Dot and connect it to their a high-end HiF (rather than buy two HomePods and set them up as a stereo pair).
There was another big problem with Apple’s focus on audio quality: the company didn’t deliver the music everyone wanted to listen to - you can tune into Apple Music, play music you have bought from the iTunes Music Store, and play various radio stations. But if you want to listen to one of the other services you have to use AirPlay to stream from your iPhone to the speaker forfeiting the ability to control the music via Siri.
Should Apple open the HomePod up to other music services?
This is apparently something the company is considering doing. According to a Bloomberg sources, Apple is thinking of making it easier for customers to stream Spotify and other Apple Music alternatives. This is a feature that’s likely to arrive with iOS 14. If Apple does this it will expand the options available to its customers.
However, it would be wrong to say that Apple hasn’t been allowing any other music services on to the HomePod, it has always been possible to play music from any service on the device, you just had to do so via the iPhone. Radio is a great example of how Apple evolved this situation: initially the only way to play radio services was to use an app on the iPhone and AirPlay to the HomePod, but in iOS 13 Apple added compatibility with the TuneIn Radio app, which means you can now just ask your HomePod to play the radio station you want without streaming from your iPhone.
Should Apple focus on something other than music?
But Smart speakers aren’t just about playing music. They might be marketed as speakers but they are much more than that, and it’s likely that eventually the speaker will be a secondary function. Smart speakers bring intelligent operating systems into our homes that we control with our voice. We can use them to control various gadgets around the home such as the thermostat, we can ask them to tell us the news, to deliver a weather forecast, to let us know what our route to work will be like, to order food. In the case of the Amazon Echo Show you can even ask it to play video.
Apple focused on audio when it launched the HomePod, but even then everyone who was thinking of buying a smart speaker wanted more than audio. And, by all accounts, Apple didn’t deliver.
Should Apple focus on HomeKit?
One aspect of that is the idea that smart speakers can be used to control our smart home appliances. The HomePod is already a hub for HomeKit, Apple’s software framework for controlling devices around the home. If you have HomeKit devices you can easily control them just by addressing Siri on your HomePod (or your iPhone for that matter).
The problem is that there aren’t a huge amount of HomeKit compatible devices and the most popular smart home gadgets, such as the Nest thermostat aren’t particularly HomeKit friendly. On the Apple website you can find various products that work with HomeKit, from lightbulbs and thermostats, to baby monitors and security cameras, but frankly all these products feel a bit gimmicky. We believe that one day all our gadgets around the home will be linked in this way, but for now there’s not a good reason to buy into Apple’s framework.
The problem is that as more homes buy into Amazon and Google’s frameworks for controlling these gadgets Apple will be left out in the cold once these smart home gadgets do take off.
Should Apple just focus on improving Siri
Apple gets a lot of flack for Siri and its inability to respond to our every need. To be fair the criticism isn’t completely fair, we’ve yet to find an intelligent assistant that’s really intelligent. We get so frustrated using the Echo Show, for example. It seems that the problem isn’t the AI’s interpretation of our command, it’s the fact that we don’t speak its language, and we can’t always remember the exact phrases to use. This is the biggest problem with all smart speakers is that they are reliant on voice commands.
How can Apple make this experience better? Siri keeps improving, but are the limitations of voice control ever going to be an adequate replacement for buttons? Sometimes I just want to skip a track without telling Siri so.
What Apple needs to do
The biggest problem with the HomePod isn’t the price, it isn’t even the lack of features or lack of compatibility with other devices and other services, and it isn’t the lack of music or the limited audio features. The big problem is the same problem every other smart speaker has - the fact that controlling it is something you have to do with your voice.
What we’d like to see is a HomePod with an iPad, or even an iPod touch integrated onto the front or top, via which you could access apps and make adjustments to settings. We’d love to be able to use such a device to watch YouTube, view the output of security cameras, even make FaceTime calls. This would be a useful device incorporating the best of the HomePod speaker and iOS. If you need to talk to it you could, but it wouldn’t be so limited if we could also touch it to control it. Being able to access screen controls directly on the device would simplify the interface and open it up to many more functions.