Thoughts on the HomePod from a Voice-First Startup Founder

Apple enters the smart assistant speaker market. Sort of.

At this year’s WWDC, Apple announced a Siri-powered home speaker, aptly named the HomePod. Rumors about this device have been circulating for well over a year, and has been described by some as Apple’s “Echo Killer.”

As the founder of a startup building design software for voice applications, I think quite a bit about how the voice ecosystem will evolve. Since multiple people have asked for my thoughts about the HomePod, I figured I would share them here.

The selling points for HomePod

During the introduction, Apple focused on the HomePod as a great sounding speaker over it’s strength as a “smart” speaker.

In fact, on the product page, the first copy lists benefits in this order:

  1. Audio quality (“a powerful speaker that sounds amazing”)
  2. More audio quality (“adapts to wherever it’s playing”)
  3. Integration with Apple Music (“effortless access to one of the world’s largest music catalogs”)
  4. Music powered by Siri (“All controlled through natural voice interaction with Siri.”) It’s also worth noting that they added a footnote to this last line, and made clear that Siri only works with Apple Music, which requires a subscription.

This isn’t surprising. There’s not a lot of love for Siri (for good reason) and there are probably few people clamoring to use her more often. And the sound quality from the Echo and Home are passable, but definitely not high-end, so perhaps they see an opening here with a “sound over smarts” launch strategy.

What do consumers want?

The Amazon Echo became widely available in the summer of 2015. This is what the wireless speaker market looked like that year.

In just six months, Amazon became the market leader with 25% of the speaker market. But look at the second chart. Amazon didn’t take market share from anyone, they grew the market. This wasn’t people who were in the market for a speaker and chose the Echo. This was consumers deciding they wanted a smart assistant device, even when there are much better speakers available.

It will be interesting to see if consumers approach the HomePod as a smarter version of a high-end speaker, or a better-sounding smart assistant.

Product vs. Platform

Apple released a new product with the HomePod, but it didn’t do much to extend Siri as a platform. To be fair, the possibility of this launch being tied to a broader opening up of Siri to third-party developers was pure speculation, and clearly this wasn’t part of Apple’s plans (yet).

The Echo’s initial mission was to launch the Alexa platform. Amazon has since shown themselves to have no plans to exclusively own the hardware side of the business, offering the Alexa Voice Service (AVS) to any device manufacturer who is interested. So far we’ve seen Alexa pop up in other speakers, appliances, and cars. In fact, at CES this year Lenovo introduced their Smart Assistant, which is just Alexa with a better speaker built by Harman Kardon, in an almost identical form factor.

Want a better sounding Alexa device? The Lenovo Smart Assistant has you covered (photo credit: The Verge).

With a surprise hit like Echo on their hands, Amazon decided to grow their line of products to go smaller (Echo Dot), portable (Echo Tap), then add a camera (Echo Look), and soon a screen (Echo Show). And they did this while open-sourcing smart speaker plans with Intel, and partnering with audio chip processing companies like Conexant to make it easier for companies to manufacture Alexa-driven devices.

Amazon’s firmly in both the product and platform business now with their voice ambitions, and shows no sign of slowing down.

Maybe HomePod is a trojan horse for bigger plans?

There has been a flurry of discussion on Twitter about the HomePod and what it signals about Apple’s voice plans. After all, they were the first to bring a voice assistant to the mass market way back in 2011, and surely they don’t plan to cede this ground to their competitors. Perhaps this is part of a larger plan.

This seems likely. It’s hard to believe that Apple would just decide to enter the speaker market based on better audio, and leave it at that. But they have yet to share what that broader strategy might be.

This doesn’t seem like a wise approach.

Clearly the folks at Apple are a smart bunch, much smarter than me. But the HomePod isn’t being released until December. Up against a market leader like Amazon, it doesn’t seem like a great idea to have announced their plans six months in advance. Amazon could easily pre-announce a better sounding Alexa device to get ahead of that launch, or deeply discount their existing product line well in advance of the holiday shopping season.

Amazon has made planning a few steps ahead in the voice market a risky thing to do. The pace at which they are releasing products, spreading Alexa, and adding features to the platform is kicking up so much dust you can’t see more than few steps ahead, and it would be foolish to bet too far out ahead of what’s happening.

For example, today Amazon announced a Video Skills API for Alexa. Alexa can now be used to control playback functionality for video apps and devices. Every cable company can integrate with Alexa for their set-top boxes.

The focus of the news was controlling devices, but didn’t mention the larger story about content.

What went underreported was that it also allows for the ingesting of video titles and metadata to fuel content control and discovery as a part of core Alexa functionality, supporting commands like “Alexa, play Guardians of the Galaxy.” If Alexa can control my cable box and I’m asking directly for movies and shows, Amazon now knows what everyone is watching, while also continuing to build out the Prime Video and the Fire product ecosystem.

If Apple sees the HomePod as part of a grand plan towards pulling together their other products and services in the home, like Apple TV and iTunes, the ground already shifted under their feet, just four days after the HomePod was announced.

The unknown future of HomePod.

Apple has a history of seeing others introduce new products, identifying what works, then dropping a device that wins the day. They didn’t have the first MP3 player, but won with the iPod. They did the same with the iPhone, and the Apple Watch. But each time they weren’t coming up against a company as aggressive and innovative as Amazon. The game seems different this time, and it will likely be a long six months before they even step on the field.


Mark Webster is the Founder/CEO of Sayspring, a design and prototyping platform for voice applications.