Apple’s HomePod is a cautious approach to the connected home

Wednesday

The new HomePod sounds great. I walked away from WWDC impressed with the full and rich sound the company has managed to get out of such a small form factor. There’s nice hardware on-board and a lot happening on the back end to create an optimal audio experience, including a six-mic array that sonically maps the room the speaker is in.

Other smart home hubs like the Echo – and many similarly priced home priced home speaker systems – can’t hold a candle to what the HomePod is able to replicate sonically. It’s easy to see why Apple is leading with the speaker bit here. Unlike devices like the Echo and Google Home, audio part isn’t secondary functionality. I would actually use the HomePod as my apartment speaker movies and music. I can’t say the same for the Echo.

The HomePod is a very Apple approach to the home hub. It’s a premium device – both with regard to build quality and performance, as well as price at $350. It also keeps with Steve Jobs’ longstanding use of music as a means for launching new products and services.Come for the nice speakers, stay for the home assistant.

It echoes how the company launched Siri in the first place. The assistant wasn’t the selling point of the new iPhone, but it was definitely a nice bonus. Ditto for the Apple TV, where Siri functionality arrived a few upgrades after launch. Apple wants to deliver its smart assistant to your home, but it doesn’t really want to make a big show of it.

Apple’s approach to home automation has been measured – cautious, even. Its strategy has been unfolding for a couple of years now, through the launch of HomeKit for connected device developers, and then the addition of the Home app to iOS 10. The company clearly recognizes that the home is the next frontier on which the consumer electronics battle will be waged, but its approach hasn’t been particularly pro-active.

And while the HomePod is the closest the company has offered to a standalone connected solution, the device is a markedly different approach than Amazon, which is working to get its solution in as many hands as possible by pricing Echo devices as close to cost as possible. As a commerce platform, Amazon’s path to profitability is more about the products it sells through Alexa than the Alexa products themselves.

For Apple, profitability comes in the form of product sales and keeping users locked into its Ecosystem. For that reason, it’s vital that it offer Siri up on the sort of premium experience the company has built its name around. And indeed, the HomePod is pure Apple, starting with the design language that eliminates ports completely. It’s a typical bit of Apple minimalism. If the Mac Pro was a speaker, it would be the HomePod.

Before yesterday’s WWDC keynote, it was clear that Apple had quite a bit of catching up to do with its connected home play. And yesterday’s news didn’t do much to highlight its long term play. The HomePod’s price point is nearly double that of the standard Echo. And the company definitely can’t compete with the Dot’s $50 price tag, which has made Amazon’s offering a compelling option for those who simply want to want to dip their toes in the smart assistant waters.

If Apple wants to be truly competitive in the smart home market, it’s going to have to find a more accessible entry point. For now, however, the company appears to be more interested in offering a premium audio experience than it does putting Siri in as many homes as possible. Perhaps that focus will shift as it builds more solutions with Siri baked in or looks toward third-parties to integrate the functionality into their own premium smart home solutions like Amazon has begun to do with Alexa.

In the meantime, the dream of taking a big chunk out of Alexa’s living room market share doesn’t feel much closer than it did ahead of WWDC. Right now it seems the company is rapidly losing market and mindshare to Amazon on the smart home front. Though as with VR, it would likely tell you that it’s still early days for the smart home. And as such, the company is more interested in delivering a premium product than it is blanketing the market.

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