With Apple’s HomePod finally arriving in the hands of pre-order customers last week, recent news headlines about the device have been dominated by reports of the device leaving unsightly marks on customer’s wooden countertops. That the Apple of 2018 can sell a heavily delayed device without rigorous testing is not the subject of this article, however.
Around the time that the HomePod became available to pre-order, I read a very thoughtful piece written by Dieter Bohn for The Verge. In it, he lists the device’s many shortcomings, but concedes that product shortcomings have rarely stopped Apple in the past. He cites the success of the original iPod — a success that changed not only an industry, but also Apple’s own fortunes — and ponders the parallels between the ’Pods.
However, I feel like there’s one key difference between the iPod and the HomePod: whereas the former took something that already existed (a portable audio player) and did it much better (ease of use, superior UI, attractive industrial design, etc.), and to the extent that it felt like a whole new product category, the latter can offer nothing new, because its unique selling point, Siri, is a technology we’re already familiar with; and, worse still, the general consensus seems to be that Siri is way behind both Google’s Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa — despite being the first to market. So the HomePod kind of does that thing that your iPhone kind of does… sometimes.
Of course, that’s not to discount the HomePod’s beautiful design, nor its excellent sound quality. Let’s be clear: the HomePod looks great — as you would expect from any Apple product — and it sounds great, too, as you would expect of any speaker at this price point (and below this price point, actually). But that’s not enough. Whereas the iPod unveiled Apple’s take on portable audio — and, in doing so, gave the product its sense of ‘newness’ — the HomePod has nothing new to unveil. Great sound quality is not revolutionary, especially not at that price. The inclusion of a familiar (and often sub-par) AI is not revolutionary. There can be no ‘grand reveal’.
The only real surprise the HomePod offers — apart from that little stain on your nicely-polished wooden sideboard — is Apple’s total unwillingness to bend to the competition. Apple Music is the one and only music service that can be played through the speaker. Of course, Spotify and its ilk can always be played via an iOS app and AirPlay’d to the HomePod, but that experience is on par with any AirPlay- or Bluetooth-enabled speaker that has been released in the last decade or so (and it’s not like AirPlay is the most reliable of wireless connections). Although Spotify support has been promised for some point in the future, it’s hard to feel too optimistic when even the iOS version of Siri can’t control it. If you’re a die-hard Apple fan (and hey, I remember how that felt), you may not care that you’re limited to interacting with Apple’s own ecosystem. In fact, to many people, that might even be a bonus — it’s true, after all, that Apple’s restrictions across its platforms have played a part in both quality and ease of use. And Apple has a long history of audacious moves that have paid off: it’s impossible for us to criticise its removal of headphone jacks from the latest iPhones, for instance, without simultaneously praising its adoption of USB at the expense of SCSI on Macs all those years ago. But such audacity does not always reap rewards: let’s not forget the Cube, the latter-generation iPod Shuffle, and, most recently, the botched Mac Pro.
A smart speaker launching in 2018, at a price far higher than competitors’ speakers of a similar spec, and with significant drawbacks? Well, it’s a very Apple thing to do, except that this time I’d suggest that the company’s audacity has crossed the line into arrogance — because, unlike the iPod, the HomePod has nothing up its sleeve.
I’ll end with a quote from Dieter’s article:
I can’t stop from feeling like the smart speaker market is further along in its evolution now than the MP3 player market was when the iPod was announced. I also can’t stop thinking that consumers are smarter and more demanding about gadgets now than they were then.