Apple unveiled a brand new product category last week at WWDC: HomePod. On the surface, HomePod seems like an unusual product for Apple. The company's most recent new products (Apple Watch and AirPods) form the foundation of an expanding wearables strategy. How does a stationary smart speaker fit into such a product strategy? Meanwhile, Amazon Echo and Google Home have led many to assume HomePod is merely Apple's me-too response to speakers piping voice assistants throughout the home. This isn't correct. HomePod isn't actually about Siri. Instead, HomePod will serve as the foundation for augmented hearing in the home.
A Computer with Speakers
While HomePod is technically a smart speaker, it is more correct to say HomePod is a computer with a touchscreen, speakers, and microphones. The device is powered by Apple's A8 chip, the same chip found in an iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. This chip is responsible for turning HomePod into a computer that contains the best-sounding speakers most people will have ever owned.
I was able to listen to HomePod play various music genres last week. (My full WWDC review is available for members here.) Apple is not overselling the device's speaker capabilities. In a somewhat controlled environment resembling a typical living room, HomePod's sound output clearly stood out from that of Amazon Echo and Sonos Play 3. In fact, it made the Amazon Echo sound like a cheap toy, and the Sonos Play 3 sounded so inferior, I wondered if something was wrong with the Sonos.
As I walked around the room, there was no change in sound quality coming from HomePod. Standing to the side of the computer, I mean speaker, rather than sitting right in front led to the same listening experience. When two HomePods were used simultaneously (there was about a five-foot gap between the two computers), a different experience was produced. Instead of just amplifying the sound, the two units worked together to produce a richer experience. It is easy to imagine how situating two HomePods in opposite corners of a room could lead to a revolutionary listening experience.
During the WWDC keynote, Apple positioned HomePod as a great speaker for playing music that can do a few other things. Those "other things" involve using Siri as a digital voice assistant. In addition to controlling various HomeKit-enabled devices around the house, Apple plans on allowing Siri to handle a set of its most popular requests out of the gate. These capabilities will be similar to those of other smart speakers in the marketplace.
This has led many to conclude that HomePod isn't actually too different than the competition, especially if Siri is deemed not as capable as other voice assistants. However, such logic severely misinterprets the situation. HomePod's value isn't found in asking Siri for sports scores or controlling the kitchen lights. HomePod's value is found in an A8 chip controlling a series of microphones and speakers.
HomePod is a computer capable of mapping a room and then adjusting its sound output accordingly. This is another way of saying that HomePod is able to capture its surroundings and then use that information to tailor a specific experience to the listener. It is easy to see how collecting data and then using that data to improve the experience will position HomePod as an augmented reality (or maybe we should say augmented hearing) device.
Whenever the topic of augmented reality (AR) is discussed, most people automatically think of the visual world. We are able to view additional information that augments reality. Apple began to lay out its big AR push with ARKit for iPhone and iPad. However, AR can also apply to hearing and sound. In both cases, we are given new sensory stimuli capable of changing our perception of the surrounding environment.
Augmented hearing in the home begins to play in the realm of omnipresent computing. It is not out of question that HomePod will eventually be able to grab data from our surroundings and then provide personalized feedback to us wherever we are at home. (Given how multiple HomePods can communicate with each other, this could be both in and around the house.) Signal processing and far-field voice recognition, items which were not demoed last week, will make it possible for the user to respond to or interact with HomePods in a normal environment containing people and plenty of other noise. While HomePods will handle this task indoors, AirPods can serve as the solution for when we are away from the home. One would be correct to think of HomePods and AirPods as siblings.
A few augmented reality examples include the HomePod recording and copying the sound from one location or room and then replicating that sound in another room. This would be game changing as it would be as though we were in a completely different room even though we hadn't changed locations. An adult would be able to speak to a child in another room by simply talking out loud in a regular tone thanks to multiple HomePods. In these examples, we are beginning to redefine how we consume sound in the home. Discussions will one day be able to be wired through HomePods and then delivered directionally so that someone in a crowded room will be able to have a private chat without the need for headphones. In effect, the definition of sound as we currently know it will be altered. In these examples, the use of multiple HomePods working together with each other multiples the value found with using the devices.
The competitive tech landscape is changing as the battle for our attention when using smartphones is broadening into a massive land grab for the most valuable real estate in our lives. The tech battle lines are being redrawn around three areas: cars, homes, and bodies. HomePod is part of Apple's growing battle for our home.
There a few variables guiding this new competitive landscape.
- Monitoring. Value will flow to devices and software that can monitor significant portions of our day.
- Intelligence. Devices will learn from this data in order to provide feedback to the user.
- Personalization. Hardware personalization will gain importance as the line between technology and fashion becomes blurry.
HomePod plays squarely in two of those three factors out of the gate. A HomePod will make for a great monitoring device while it will also be able to provide intelligent feedback via speakers and microphones. While HomePod doesn't play in hardware personalization similar to that of Apple Watch and other wearables, the personalization angle takes the form of tailored, personalized listening experiences suited to our specific hearing needs.
When it comes to the concept of a smart home, we are still looking at pretty rudimentary ideas. A home won't be truly smart until tech companies build housing and we are no longer able to tell between smart and non-smart items. Up to that point, a smart home describes the concept of controlling things around the home that move. Given how the smart home battle is still in the early stages, Apple has the opportunity to do quite a bit with HomePod and the concept of augmented hearing in the home.
HomePod is not Apple's first product designed to compete for our attention in the home. Instead, Apple has been selling Trojan horses in its battle for our home called iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches. These mobile devices are very likely to remain near us, or in some cases, on us, when we are at home. HomePod is unlike the Amazon Echo because it doesn't pretend that we lack smartphones, tablets, or wearables. This is one reason why Apple decided to take a straightforward path in pitching HomePod as a great music speaker. The device is all about producing sound so great that it cannot be replicated by any of our other devices, even if the HomePod has touch controls located on the top of the device.
When it comes to pricing, HomePod should not be compared to voice assistant conduits such as Amazon Echo or Google Home. The HomePod is not just a "smart speaker." Saying that HomePod is competing against Amazon Echo is equivalent to saying the iPod competed against generic MP3 players.
Instead, a more relevant HomePod comparison would be dedicated speaker systems from Sonos and Bose. With HomePod, Apple is aiming to sell the best speaker someone has ever owned. The Sonos Play 5, at $499, may be the closest comparable speaker to HomePod within the Sonos lineup. At $349, HomePod is priced very competitively not only when it is compared to the Play 5, but even when it is compared to the $299 Sonos Play 3, which was inferior to HomePod in terms of sound quality. Meanwhile, surround sound speaker systems from Bose retail from $700 to $1,000, or the same price as three HomePods.
Of course, comparing HomePod to existing speakers in the marketplace ignores the fact that HomePod is powered by an A8 chip. This is like comparing AirPods to a simple pair of bluetooth wireless headphones lacking Apple's W1 chip. While Sonos claims to do some form of room mapping to alter its sound output, the process just doesn't compare to that which is found with HomePod.
As with any major new product category from Apple, management is placing a few big bets on HomePod. Apple is ultimately looking to sell a new idea to consumers. This idea involves positioning stationary speakers throughout the home. The concept may seem like a stretch today because it mostly is when looking at the current state of standalone speakers. Judging by sales, the standalone speaker market is niche. We have not seen the need to buy stand-alone speakers to accompany existing speakers found in TVs, iPhones, and iPads. Apple wants to change consumer behavior with HomePod. The other challenge Apple faces is convincing people of the value attached to augmented hearing.
Apple likes to point out how music is in its DNA. We can look at iTunes, iPod, iPhone, Apple Music, and now AirPods, as well-known Apple products tasked with rethinking how we consume music. One product missing from that list is the iPod Hi-Fi. In what may come as a surprise to many, Apple actually sold a standalone speaker (which also retailed $349). The fact that iPod Hi-Fi was available for just 17 months back in 2006 and 2007 speaks volumes as to its ultimate success.
There are key differences between that speaker and HomePod. iPod Hi-Fi was meant to sell iPods (and iTunes) by making it easy to connect an iPod to a great-sounding home stereo. HomePod is given a much more ambitious goal, which is to reinvent sound in the home. In fact, Apple wants HomePod to redefine sound in the home much as iPod, iPhone, and now AirPods, redefined sound on the go. Apple will begin this quest by initially positioning HomePod as a great speaker that can add value to the Apple ecosystem. Apple's audio engineering team is at a completely different place today than it was 10 years ago. However, the fundamental difference between HomePod and iPod Hi-Fi quickly becomes obvious as Apple silicon allows the HomePod to do revolutionary things with speakers and microphones.
The writing is on the wall: Apple wants to control as many speakers in our lives as possible. Controlling sound is Apple's secret strategy for gaining a stronger foothold in the home.
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