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Apple Will Enter Smart Speaker Market in December with HomePod

With the announcement of the HomePod during the WWDC keynote today, Apple finally put the brakes on the endless speculation about whether the company would release a smart speaker to compete with Amazon’s popular Echo and its Google Home competitor.

However, Apple didn’t just wade into the fray with a me-too product. In fact, during the announcement, the whole “smart” part of the “smart speaker” didn’t warrant mention until near the end. Instead, Apple focused its attention on the “speaker” features of the HomePod.

Apple’s Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller said that Apple has been working for years to reinvent the way we enjoy music in the home, and to that end, the company first designed the HomePod to be a great speaker.

It’s just under 7 inches (17 cm) tall and is covered in a 3-D mesh fabric. It features an array of seven beam-forming tweeters, each with its own driver, and precision acoustic horns that can direct sound in any direction. Bass comes from a 4-inch Apple-designed woofer that faces upward to move a lot of air, and software provides automatic bass equalization to avoid distortion as the volume increases.

All this is powered by Apple’s A8 chip, which the company first used in the iPhone 6. It provides real-time acoustic modeling, audio beam-forming, and multi-channel echo cancellation.

Since speakers live in different rooms with radically different acoustic properties, the HomePod has spatial awareness, in that it can detect its surroundings and adjust the music to match. It even knows if there’s a second HomePod in the room, and if so, it changes how it emits sound to provide the best possible listening experience.

Apple is also using the HomePod’s processing capabilities and its array of six microphones to let you control it via Siri. Control what? Music, of course, and Apple assumes that you’ll have an Apple Music subscription. To that end, Apple has expanded Siri’s vocabulary when it comes to music. Plus, the HomePod will connect directly to Apple Music, so you won’t have to play music through another device, although we expect that will be possible as well.

What about all the other stuff that people have become accustomed to asking of the Echo and Google Home smart speakers? Apple got to this at the very end, almost as an afterthought. You’ll be able to ask Siri for news, unit conversion, stock info, weather forecasts, traffic reports, sports scores, and more. You’ll also be able to send messages, make reminders, set alarms and timers, and control HomeKit devices.

Apple emphasized the privacy aspects of the HomePod. Until you say “Hey, Siri,” all recognition happens only locally. Only after you utter that trigger phrase is any data sent to Apple, where it’s associated with an anonymous Siri ID. All communications are end-to-end encrypted.

Why didn’t Apple plug the virtual assistant features of the HomePod more? We have a few theories:

  • It’s possible that Apple’s research shows that what people do most with smart speakers is listen to music. That’s certainly been our experience. Many of the things these smart speakers can do are better done elsewhere or are trivial examples. They’re good at bar trivia questions like who won the Super Bowl in 1967, but how often do you really wonder about such questions?

  • Although Apple would never admit this, it’s also possible that Siri doesn’t work as well as Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Assistant technologies. Evaluating this would be difficult, and it’s likely that each has its own strengths and weaknesses.

  • The HomePod will cost $349, which is a lot more than the smart speaker competition. The Amazon Echo Dot is $49.99, the Echo is $179.99, and the Echo Show is $229.99. The Google Home runs $129 but can be found for under $100. Apple instead suggested that we should compare the HomePod against the cost of quality Wi-Fi speakers, which are $300 to $500, plus the $50 to $200 cost of a smart speaker. It’s all about how you frame things.

Regardless of why Apple chose to focus more on the audio quality of the HomePod than its Siri-driven smarts, we won’t be able to evaluate how well it does at either until it ships, which Apple promised for December 2017 in the United States, UK, and Australia. With other companies, that would be too late for the holiday shopping season, but since Apple sells so much directly, early to mid December should still work. Other countries will have to wait a little longer.


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Comments about Apple Will Enter Smart Speaker Market in December with HomePod
(Comments are closed.)

Scott M.  2017-06-05 23:48
"Plus, the HomePod will connect directly to Apple Music, so you won’t have to play music through another device, although we expect that will be possible as well."

I assume that by this statement that there was no indication beyond the Keynote as to whether the HomePod will support AirPlay from a Mac or iOS device. Certainly nothing about that was said during the Keynote itself from what I recall.

I have to admit that I am not overly impressed with the HomePod. It would have to be pretty incredibly awesome sound and indispensable integration with the Apple ecosystem (and also support AirPlay...I don't have an Apple Music subscription and have no plan to ever get one as I had subscription services for music and software) for me to consider spending about $200 more for a HomePod than an Echo. And that does not even account for the fact that I am no where near an "audiophile".
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2017-06-06 09:59
Yeah, no indication, but it makes very little sense that it would work only with Apple Music. There are just too many situations where you might want to play audio that's not in Apple Music.

I think the allure of the HomePod is twofold: the audio quality and the deep integration with the Apple ecosystem. Being able to set it up merely by holding an iPhone next to it is pretty neat, and you'll be able to send iMessages and control HomeKit devices.

As to how it really competes with other products on quality and responsiveness, there's no telling until it ships.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2017-06-06 10:26
Since they also announced AirPlay 2 yesterday, I'm willing to bet that the HomePod supports that. I guess we'll find out more later this year.
Scott M.  2017-06-06 10:29
All my devices that are HomeKit compatible can also be controlled by my Echo. And it can controls some that are not HomeKit compatible. So, not sure how "killer" that feature is.

Not sure if I would want to use iMessages. After enabling the new messaging feature in the Echo, I turned it off (with Amazon's amazing stupid implementation of only being able to do that by calling them) after I got a notification for a message a 3 am. Amazon definitely jumped the gun on the messaging/calling seems to be a VERY beta status update if not even alpha status. They should have fleshed it out more (the Do Not Disturb is buried in the Alexa app and the requirement to upload ALL of my iPhone contact to Amazon's server as the only option is just stupid...I did not grant permission for that on my iPhone, so after enabling the messaging/calling it was effectively worthless). So, I will be interested to see if Apple's implementation with iMessages is better.

And if they do not implement AirPlay or even just Bluetooth, then it is completely worthless to me. As I said, I have no intention of getting an Apple Music subscription.

So, the jury is still WAY out for me. Time will tell.

I will say it did cause me to think of some "Trash Can, the sequel" jokes however (it does like of look like a perforated, squat Mac Pro).
Scott M.  2017-06-06 10:56
I would be a bit surprised if it did not support AirPlay (in the form of AirPlay 2). It would frankly be stupid for it not to support it.

But, then Apple does not always do the smart thing, so until I hear them say it or someone I trust hears them say it and reports it, I will remain at least a little skeptical. I would not put it past them to decide "hey, this is a good way to get people to sign up for Apple Music...only have the HomePod play music from Apple Music". It is the "lets lock them in to other services" mentality that Apple has employed in the past, albeit maybe a bit more extreme than past situations if they were to actually do it.
Kirby Krieger  2017-06-06 05:30
This appears to be aimed directly at Sonos.
brian.workman  2017-06-06 10:30
>They’re good at bar trivia questions like who won the Super Bowl in 1956...

Seriously? You know there was no Super Bowl before 1967 right? ^_^

I know it was just an example, but it popped me out of the article.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2017-06-06 11:59
Yeah, it was just a throwaway example in the middle of a marathon 12-hour writing day. Fixed! :-)

But in fact, I didn't know that the Super Bowl started in 1967, and when I asked Siri just now, all I got was "Sorry, Adam, I couldn't find any scheduled games or scores matching your request." Clearly Apple should fix that response to say, "Sorry, Adam, but I can't answer that question because the first Super Bowl was in 1967."

Interestingly, when I asked Google the same question, it gave me the score for the 1956 NFL championship game. That's pretty good, since the NFL championship was essentially the Super Bowl of the time, since the AFL wasn't formed until 1960, and the Super Bowl was intended to be the AFL/NFL championship game. But I had to research that on my own.

Of course, while I find reading about the history of these things somewhat interesting, I can barely remember who won the Super Bowl this year because, well, I just don't care. :-)

Personally, now that I try more bar trivia questions, I'm a little offended that Siri doesn't know anything about running. Ask "Who ran the first four-minute mile?" or "What's the world record in the marathon?" and all you get are Web results. Feh!
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2017-06-06 12:44
I should have caught this, since I'm a football fan, but yesterday was a bit of a circus. :-)
brian.workman  2017-06-06 15:10
I hate when I ask her a question and she gives me the name of a nearby restaurant. Siri! It wasn't even a food related question! Bad Siri! Bad!
brian.workman  2017-06-06 15:12
Oh! And the more interesting question is "what did they call the Super Bowl trophy in the first few years?" Because it clearly wasn't the Vince Lombardi Trophy since he was still coaching then. But I digress.
tom powers  2017-06-06 19:32
From the wikipedia article on "vince lombardi trophy:"

Even though [the Superbowl] is a national tournament, the award was initially inscribed with the words "World Professional Football Championship". It was officially renamed in 1970 in memory of NFL head coach Vince Lombardi, after his death from cancer. It was thus presented for the first time as the Vince Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl V when the Baltimore Colts defeated the Dallas Cowboys 16-13. It has also been referred to as the "Tiffany Trophy" after the Tiffany & Co.
I'd be interested in this device for playing music off my Mac or my iPhone/iPad to a living room speaker. I don't have/want Apple Music, so I'd be curious if this device will still work for what I'd like to do (AirPlay?).

I'm not into any kind of home automation so can this be shut off entirely? Likewise Siri, can I chose to not enable Siri at all on HomePod?

Finally, does HomePod use wifi or does it require Bluetooth? I try to keep BT off on all my devices. I'd like to know that I can talk to and use HomePod without having to turn BT on.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2017-06-06 16:13
I can't answer the other questions, but HomeKit automation is totally optional. You have to purchase and set up devices to use that. HomePod won't suddenly take over your light fixtures and toaster. :-)
I'd be more worried that by HomePod running HomeKit software (daemon?) it could open ports and listen on them thereby creating a possible vulnerability on my home network. Obviously my toaster from 1972 will always remain just fine. :))
Craig Treleaven  2017-06-06 15:15
So what have we Canadians done that has so deeply offended Apple? We're now late to the party on all sorts of things, HomePod just being the latest.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2017-06-06 16:31
Seriously. Canada has more people than Australia by a good bit, so it must not be based purely on market size. Perhaps Australia is easier due to its proximity to China, where the HomePod will likely be made.

Hopefully it will be only a short delay before worldwide release!
Michael E. Cohen  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2017-06-07 12:44
The delay may have something to do with the radio certification process for wireless devices, which varies from country to country.
Scott M.  2017-06-09 02:35
Maybe it is to make up for the "released in the fall" bit for High Sierra and iOS 11 that might have offended the Aussies. ;-)
Craig Treleaven  2017-06-06 15:21
WWDC has an AirPlay 2 session on Thurs at 4:10 Pacific. Hopefully some questions will be answered there. Wonder if existing Airplay devices will be able to join the AirPlay 2 party with a firmware update or if new hardware is necessary. Would especially suck if the ATV 4 can't.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2017-06-06 16:11
They confirmed that the Apple TV will act as an AirPlay 2 receiver.
Scott M.  2017-06-09 03:06
I seem to remember it being implied during the keynote that AppleTV would support it.

To me, other one is whether or not Airport Express will support it since there is a lot of talk about Apple not continuing with routers. I have used an Airport Express as a cheap option compared to something like a Sonos system for years.

I am not too worried about the ability to stream music to multiple speakers directly from my iPhone as in my case, I use the multiroom support of playing from iTunes on my Mac and controlling it with the iTunes Remote app (which it looks like Apple upgraded to 64 bit, so I will be able to keep using it). And that systems works now with my all my AppleTVs (although only one really gets used for this purpose) and the Airport Express without Airplay 2.

This is also the reason why I likely won't be too interested in a HomePod. The one AppleTV is hooked to my stereo receiver and its good speakers and the Airport Express is hooked to some rather decent computer speakers. End result is that I have my house fairly well covered for music now. And I already have a "smart home assistant" device covered in the form of an Echo and some Echo Dots. So, I don't have a driving "void" to fill that the HomePod would fit. And that is without even going into the price as a deterrent.
Rolando  2017-06-11 12:48
Is there any other connectivity other than Airplay? I'd like to replace an old stereo hooked to the TV? Any mini/digital in ports?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2017-06-13 09:51
As far as I can tell from what Apple has posted, no, it will be AirPlay only.
David Stamp  2017-06-13 08:20
Hopefully Apple will include mesh WIFI capability within HomePod units - that way they will really decimate Google Assistant and Amazon Echo sales...

Being the main distributed home portal for mesh WIFI means Apple will corner the 'home' market in more ways than one...