On Monday, the most awaited and rumored device of Apple’s developer conference was finally announced as the last one thing of an over two-hour long keynote: HomePod.
A little later in the day, in a room that is probably as large as my family room at home, I had the opportunity to listen to HomePod and compare its performance to an Amazon Echo and a Sonos Play 3. I listened to five songs across the three devices: Sia’s “The Greatest,” “Sunrise” by Norah Jones, “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder, “DNA” by Kendrick Lamar and a live performance of The Eagles’ “Hotel California.” The sound coming from HomePod was crisper and the vocals clearer than the Sonos. The comparison with Echo was the harsher of the two. No matter where I stood in the room, the music sounded great. What I did not get to do was talk to Siri! Even the demo was run from an iPad which would imply there is Bluetooth support with HomePod.
The Advantage of Going Music First
On Stage, Phil Schiller said the HomePod will do to home music what iPod did to music overall. The iPod, of course, did a lot to music from a business model perspective but I do not think this is what Schiller was getting at. I believe the ‘reinventing home music’ comment is actually closer to what AirPods have done for wireless headsets. They created a more magical experience from pairing your phone, all the way to listening to music. HomePod delivers good quality sound without the added complexity of having to figure out where to position multiple speakers in a room to achieve that sound. The fact that HomePod understands where it is positioned in the room and whether or not it is paired with another HomePod so that the way the music is played changes dynamically takes all the burden away from the user.
By focusing on music first, Apple straight away opens up the addressable market to a much broader segment than what a smart speaker would do. There are more people our there interested in buying or replacing their speakers that care about good sound quality than there are wanting a smart speaker that delivers ok sound.
While early tech adopters might find it easy to invest in a speaker to get access to an assistant the price that they are willing to pay for it has been set by Amazon and Google and so far it has not gone past $249. Beyond early adopters justifying the investment gets a little more tricky if the core value is put on the assistant. Nobody would question quality sound, however. And even if the assistant turns out not to be that key for you, you would not be regretting the purchase. That is a smart move when you think that Apple not only knows music but knows hardware.
Siri as a Specialist to Build Trust
During the keynote, Apple was much more intentional with how it described Siri beyond voice. As the different presenters talked about Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence Siri clearly emerged as a brain, not just a voice.
When it comes to HomePod, Siri becomes a musicologist that will be able to understand my music taste and preferences and deliver the perfect playlist just when I ask “Siri play some music I like.” Determine what music to play in relation to taste, possibly mood and time of the day does not seem particularly difficult which would give Siri a high chance to get it right. This accuracy is going to build confidence in the user who will likely increase usage and trust Siri for other things over time.
Opening too much too soon when it comes to APIs, however, could spoil that experience and Apple is not willing to take that risks. The number of things you can do with an intelligent speaker or any device that is linked to a digital assistant is not, in my opinion, what truly matters.
Alexa has over 11 thousand skills but how many are regularly used in a way that makes an impact on the user life. In a way, skills are the new apps. The number game works for a while but what it will boil down to is what skills hook me on the device. Everybody is going to be a little different. For me, my Alexa morning briefings and traffic alerts have become a part of my morning routine.
The number of devices that will be able to integrate an assistant is also not the most important thing in the overall experience. Just because you can integrate an assistant in a fridge or a washing machine it does not mean that you should. Voice UI and assistant are two different things. Will I want to control my washing machine with voice? Sure. Will I want for my assistant to be in my washing machine? No!
Curating the experience so early in the game is important. Our data shows that consumers who tried a digital assistant a few times and did not get the answer or the task they wanted gave up and never tried again. Getting disappointed users to try again is harder than getting consumers to try in the first place.
Don’t draw Conclusions on Why We did not get to interact with Siri
Apple said that HomePod is a hub to control Home when out and about. It also said that Siri in HomePod can do the same things “she” does in the iPhone or the iPad. There are a lot of questions that do not have answers today: will HomePod be able to recognize and differentiate users when it is associated with a Music family account? Will HomePod connect to my Apple TV? Will I be able to stream other music services other than Apple Music? Will there be a developer kit?
When it comes to Siri, I would urge not to conclude that the Siri we know today will be the same as what we will discover once HomePod hits the market. We are aware that iOS 11 will bring enhancements to Siri. Aside from a new voice, and more context that will be used to suggest answers to follow-up questions, Siri will now support translation from English into Chinese, German, Italian, French and Spanish with more to come later. Siri will also be able to provide bank account summaries, balance transfers and support third-party note-taking.
I believe that the reason why we did not get to interact with Siri as part of the demo is that the experience will be very different, but there is, of course, more work to be done otherwise HomePod will be shipping now! By letting HomePod out of the bag, Apple made sure that people in the market for a speaker did not rush to get what is available on the market today.
Slow and Steady wins the Race
As much as we like to talk about who is ahead and who is behind, the reality is that the smart speaker and digital assistant market are still at the start of a long opportunity and Apple is still right in the game. While Siri might not come across as smart as Alexa and Google Assistant “she” has been learning consumers’ preferences, habits, behaviors for years now and doing that across over thirty countries albeit with different skills. Apple mentioned that Siri is used monthly on 375 million devices. This reach is a significant advantage and maybe the primary source of the discontent that some feel right now. With Siri having this kind of advantage why are we not seeing more? Well, I think we are about to see more!