Apple is getting serious about competing with Amazon’s and Google’s infiltration of the home.
At the company’s annual developer conference on Monday, Apple announced a new Wi-Fi speaker called HomePod that will play music and respond to voice commands with Apple’s digital assistant, Siri. HomePod will be released in December for $349, and it's meant to work with Apple's $10-per-month subscription music service, Apple Music.
HomePod marks Apple’s attempt to put a stake in the smart-home assistant hardware market, an area currently dominated by Amazon’s growing array of Alexa-running devices, like its Echo speaker, and Google’s Home gadget, which runs Google Assistant.
HomePod doesn’t have a display, but when you say “Hey Siri” to invoke Apple’s assistant, the top of the device lights up. It can do things Siri already does, like deliver weather, traffic, or sports updates. You can also use it to relay voice commands to smart appliances that use Apple’s smart-home software, HomeKit (these include a range of smart bulbs, thermostats, and so on, but excludes Google-owned Nest’s smart thermostat).
In many ways, Apple kicked off the mass-market digital personal assistant trend in 2011 with the release of Siri for the iPhone, then considered novel for its abilities to respond to commands to make phone calls, check the weather, or set up an appointment (though its ability to understand queries was sometimes comically bad). Siri was originally developed at SRI International as part of a DARPA-funded artificial intelligence project called CALO (Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes) and spun out as a startup; Apple purchased it in 2010.
Apple has lagged behind Google and Amazon, however, in incorporating Siri into a voice-operated household device, and it was widely expected to start selling its own.
After all, the market for such devices is growing fast, and projected to keep expanding: in a report this month, research firm eMarketer predicted nearly 36 million Americans will use a speaker-based voice-assistant each month this year, more than twice as many as a year ago. About 71 percent of them will be using Amazon’s Echo speaker, while Google’s Home captures about 24 percent of the market. This overall adoption is still tiny compared to, say, the number of people using smartphones every month, but is growing faster.
Yet even as Apple showed off HomePod—which it saved for last during the more than two-hour presentation—the company seemed to deliberately undersell the device as an all-around home assistant. Instead, it positioned the product as a more of a smart speaker that is wedded to Apple Music and happens to also have other capabilities thanks to its Siri integration.
First, there’s the name, HomePod, which hearkens back to Apple’s iPod—a device that has always been focused almost exclusively on tunes.
“Just like we did with portable music, we want to reinvent home music,” CEO Tim Cook said.
Second, when Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of marketing, came back to the stage to present the device, he spent much of his time highlighting how well it plays music—explaining the minutiae of its built-in tweeters and woofer. He also singled out its ability to figure out the acoustics of the room it’s in, and optimize the sound accordingly.
Finally, when talking about its ability to use Siri, he explained most in depth how the assistant can help with a range of music-related HomePod commands like “Play something more mellow” or questions like “Who’s playing drums on this track?” These types of music-related capabilities are limited to Apple Music subscribers, though; if you don't want to pay a monthly fee, Siri won't be able to help you here.