Apple wrapped up WWDC on Monday by showing off the HomePod, its brand new smart speaker. The stout, cylindrical gadget packs in seven tweeters, six microphones, and a four-inch woofer that delivers impressive sound. The HomePod is very much a speaker, but for Apple, it also represents something more: a way to bring Siri into your home at a time when virtual assistants are smarter than ever. The question is whether the HomePod brings anything new to the table.
Like the Amazon Echo or Google Home, Apple’s HomePod provides a new shell for its omnipresent virtual assistant. But unlike Echo or Home, it’ll sound amazing. Phil Schiller, Apple’s head of marketing, claimed that while most companies choose to focus on either sound or smarts, the HomePod brings both in spades. “We wanted to combine all this into a product that can really deliver a breakthrough experience,” he said onstage.
The only issue? It’s not yet clear what that experience will actually be like. Schiller spent little time talking about HomePod’s capabilities as a home assistant, focusing instead on the device’s impressive audio specs. He did say HomePod would integrate with HomeKit to manage simple tasks like controlling your blinds, changing the temperature, and turning on the yard sprinklers, all through voice commands. But will the assistant know how to communicate across devices, displaying relevant information—lists, maps, and to do lists—on your TV or phone? Will people be tied to their shiny new iPads when they want to accomplish something more complex than asking Siri to play the next song? How, exactly, will Siri flex its increasingly capable predictive skills in the HomePod?
“What we saw yesterday wasn’t the full picture,” says Werner Goertz, an analyst with Gartner. “It was an almost verbatim copy of the Amazon Echo launch from two and a half years ago.” The HomePod felt more like a souped-up Sonos system than a paradigm shifting piece of hardware. It might sound better than its competitors, and look better too. But Apple’s fresh take on the smart speaker really didn’t seem all that fresh.
HomePod comes at a time when both Amazon and Google are experimenting with new ways to get people using their voice assistants in intuitive ways. Just last month, Amazon introduced the Echo Show, an angular smart speaker with an attached touchscreen. Amazon realized that Alexa’s chattiness could only go so far in an audio-only world; certain tasks require visual aids, like browsing for clothes online or checking into a flight. (It also makes buying stuff way easier.) The fact that you can now interact with Alexa using either your voice or a screen shows that the future of these devices will demand both modes, in a way that works seamlessly across all of your devices.
Schiller himself has said as much. Last month, he gave an interview to the blog 360 Gadgets, during which he hinted at the upcoming HomePod and threw subtle shade at Amazon and Google. “There’s many moments where a voice assistant is really beneficial, but that doesn’t mean you’d never want a screen,” he said. “So the idea of not having a screen, I don’t think suits many situations.”
HomePod doesn’t have a screen, which might be because almost everything else in the Apple universe already does. Apple also billed HomePod primarily as a music device that just happens to have Siri, describing the assistant more as a “musicologist” who uses AI to pick your playlists than the organizer of all your digital devices. Meanwhile, Amazon Echo and Google Home built their virtual assistants into catch-all productivity aids that field any number of requests, many of which benefit from multi-modal input like voice command and a touchscreen. “There will always be value in using multiple senses,” says Ethan Imboden, head of venture design at the design studio Frog. “Those who succeed in this space will understand what is the best interface for any given motive.”
HomePod’s design suggests that Apple isn’t concerned with pushing the boundaries of what a home assistant could be; for now, catching up is enough. In many ways, that’s Apple’s MO. “They let others serve as their beta launch, learn from this, then leverage the combination of their exceptional design and production capabilities, the stickiness of their integrated product ecosystem, and their network of retail outlets to step in strongly,” says Imboden.
It’s still too early to say whether the approach with the HomePod is brilliant or doomed. On one hand, Apple could be using music to trojan horse HomePod—and Siri—into as many living rooms as possible. At the same time, people expect their smart speakers to actually be smart, and positioning Siri as a “musicologist” almost seems to underscore the fact that Apple’s assistant still lags behind the others.
Still, Apple makes great hardware, so it’s safe to assume they won’t be hurting for sales—even if the HomePod, priced at $350, costs twice as much as either the Amazon Echo or Google Home. Plenty of people will buy HomePod because it’s pretty or because everything else they own is Apple. But only time will tell how much the HomePod can redefine what an intelligent speaker could be.