Apple HomePod: tell Me where You come from, I will tell You who You are!

on January 24, 2018

We have a date! Apple HomePod will be available in stores from February 9, and it can be ordered online from this Friday, January 26 in US, UK, and Australia. Apple’s release also says that France and Germany will get it in the spring.

While we do not have much more information than we did when HomePod was announced back in June many, including yours truly, are trying to read the tea-leaves on how successful this product will be. In doing so, comparisons are made with previous products such as iPod and Apple TV, as well as competitive products like Sonos, Amazon Echo, and Google Home.

I would like to take a step back and look at how Apple positioned HomePod and why.

It’s all about Music

From the very beginning, Apple has positioned HomePod as a high-quality-sound speaker.  Even on stage, back in June, Phil Schiller said HomePod was going to be as important to the home music experience as iPod was to the personal music experience. This makes it compete more with the likes of Sonos than Amazon Echo.

When talking about the smarts of the device, it is its audio innovation and software that are highlighted rather than smart home connectivity and digital assistant support. Even when it comes to Siri, it is her augmented knowledge about music that is first mentioned. Of course, Siri can do other things the same as she does on the iPhone.

All indeed points to Apple making HomePod a music device for the home, not a catch-all smart speaker like Amazon and Google’s. This does not mean that HomePod might not be used in a similar way as many use Echo and Google Home products. Nor does it mean that buyers will not find the music experience compelling enough to justify spending $349. In this respect, HomePod is very similar to AirPods when it comes to the value of good quality and innovative audio solution coupled with simple set up.

Music has never been a hobby for Apple, quite the opposite. And this is why I see HomePod as an essential product for Apple. It might not be in a way most people are thinking about it, as a cornerstone to a connected home, but this does not make it less important to the growth in services that Apple has been recording, of which Apple Music subscriptions are a big part.

Siri is not looking for a New Home

Apple is in a very fortunate position of not needing a home for Siri. As their press release points out, Siri is already actively being used on over half a billion devices across the world. This was clearly not the case for Amazon. Siri is already in the home, in the car, on my wrist, and in my ear. This is bound to impact the way Apple is thinking about HomePod in the home.

Because of how we use Siri today I see her as a very personal experience, not a shared one. Siri in the car is an excellent example of how less seamless the interaction can be when it is not just the two of us. Because CarPlay is connected to my phone, it means I am in charge of what music is going to be played as Siri does not respond to anyone else’s music requests. This means that I either have to trigger Siri for my daughter to make a request or I have to sit and listen to her complaining while she screams “Hey Siri” to get me to give in.

It will be interesting to see how Apple deals with the shared music experience with HomePod. Will we be able to train Siri to recognize different voices and therefore set up different profiles? Or will HomePod be linked to one phone and one profile but everybody could ask Siri anything music related? What about HomeKit? Will I be the lady of the house or will the whole family be able to turn the lights on and off?

Building a relationship with a personal assistant takes time and trust but should be more straightforward to set up from a technology perspective. When shared, the complexity that an assistant will have to deal with grows. No one has done that elegantly thus far other than for very top level actions, so Apple is not alone in having to figure this out. That is, of course, if Apple is interested in a communal Siri. Historically, Apple has been more focused on personal experiences than shared ones, mostly because those experiences were starting from a personal device.

Voice too, not Voice only

If I am right and HomePod will be a music-first kind of device, I also start to wonder whether or not Apple believes in ambient computing. I certainly think, Apple believes in giving people options when it comes to how they interact with Siri, but they might not believe that smart home interactions and the value of an assistant can only be channeled through voice. This might explain why Siri’s skills and HomeKit’s support are not added at the same pace as we have seen with Amazon and Google.

We are still at the very beginning of this smart home, voice first and ambient computing roll out and I think it is hard to believe we know what consumers will eventually settle on. Right now, it is natural to think that because you can do more with a specific assistant that assistant is more advanced. Over time, however, we might not appreciate an assistant that is the Jack of all trades, and we might even trust less an assistant that cracks a joke over one that is more focused and gets the job done.

As we are getting started, and there are still so many questions offering more seems to be a way for companies to see what works and what sticks. This is not what Apple usually does though. Apple has a vision and while that vision might get tweaked – Apple Watch probably the best recent example – we will never see Apple throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks.