When Apple first announced its HomePod, some were rightly baffled as to exactly what it was trying to be. Most initially saw it as a smart assistant, until they found out that its capabilities would be incredibly limited up against the likes of Amazon’s Echo or Google’s Home. Then the company posited it as high-end, quality speaker (which it reportedly is), but the $350 price tag will have users expecting more from a connected Apple device.
Both Google and Amazon have made cheaper products with a greater emphasis on the capabilities of their digital assistants. Both the Echo (particularly the Dot) and Home are designed to be small enough to tuck away, and neither has put a great deal of emphasis on real sleek design. Apple, on the other hand, has built a speaker that is designed to stand out as one. Easily the best looking of the three, the HomePod is also bigger and commands a much greater presence in a room than its rivals. As you might expect with Apple, it’s more of a luxury device - the sound quality is notably higher and it carries a price tag that reflects that.
It’s the price tag that may ultimately hold the HomePod back from acting as a true smart home device. The Echo Dot is $50, a steal against the $350 Apple is asking its customers to pay. At $50, users could feasibly dot a few of the devices around their home so that they are almost always within range. The tech-utopian dream of controlling an entire home with one’s voice relies on it being accessible from all areas of that home. In many ways it seems as though Apple doesn’t expect users to actually use its smart home features. According to the Verge, ‘Siri will be limited to specific categories that Apple thinks make sense for HomePod,’ rather than being able to perform basically any task possible on the internet (Amazon and Google’s promise). Siri has fallen behind its competitors, and Apple is instead pushing HomePod as a speaker first, assistant second.
There’s a possible reason for this, though: Apple is expecting the HomePod to be just a part of the wider smart home system, rather than the hub itself. Apple’s big play is HomeKit. It’s Home app is compatible with an ever-growing number of home utilities - from lights to thermostats to garage doors - and Apple is slowing but surely building an effective hub from which to control these separate devices. And, as of this week, Apple has been unveiling interactive HomeKit promotional experiences in 46 of its retail stores worldwide. The displays allow users to test HomeKit on an iPhone, an iPad, and an Apple Watch, controlling devices like ceiling fans and light bulbs. It’s not mind-blowing capability, but it is a big step in the normalization of the smart home as a technology.
Apple is taking a risk, though. Given that voice assistants like Echo are currently the most common smart home enabled device, to go in at such a high price point is a bold gamble. In doing so, Apple will do little to challenge Google and Amazon’s dominance in the area, and will be ceding valuable mass market ground as the smart home takes off. So, in a sense, Apple is attempting to play catch up with a high end product, and it’s a risk that could define its position in what is set to be an enormous market.