What it is: Apple is finally taking orders for HomePod, the smart speaker promised in December.
The smart speaker market is still growing, defined by Amazon’s low-cost Echo devices that cost as little as $49. The basic idea behind smart speakers is that they can do the following:
- Accept voice commands through a voice assistant
- Play music
- Control a smart home
For many people, a low-cost device like Amazon’s Echo may be all they want since the cost is so low. Yet what do most people use a smart speaker for? Undoubtedly many people are buying smart speakers just to play music. Controlling a smart home is likely far down their list of priorities, which means that playing music is at the top and giving voice commands is likely second in importance.
If playing music is the primary use for a smart speaker, Apple is hoping HomePod’s superior audio quality will help it capture the high-end market of audiophiles who want the best sound quality possible. Of course, most people are fine listening to muffled audio through CDs or MP3 files but true audiophiles appreciate vinyl records and more expensive speakers. Those will be the people HomePod will target first.
So the real question is how good is the audio quality of HomePod compared to its rivals? If the audio quality isn’t that noticeably, people will likely choose lower-cost options. If the audio quality is drastically different, then more people will likely choose HomePod.
The ability to accept voice commands is likely secondary in importance. Siri has been on the iPhone for years, yet a vast majority of people don’t use it. Amazon’s Alexa is available on their Echo devices but again, how many people absolutely need to give voice commands to a smart speaker? It can be convenient and fun, but is this something people will do regularly because it’s something they need? At this point, the answer is mostly no.
Giving voice commands is crucial for hands-free computing such as in CarPlay while you’re driving a car and need to keep your attention focused on the road. Giving voice commands at home isn’t crucial, which means the voice assistant in smart speakers is nice to have but certainly not critical. Most people who own a smart speaker likely don’t talk to it multiple times during the day for critical purposes. That makes accepting voice commands handy but ultimately a luxury.
The third use of smart speakers is to control a smart home. Given how few people actually have a smart home, this feature is the least needed feature of all. Yet in the future, this could be a crucial feature. HomePod links to HomeKit but HomePod will likely go through several generations before people start relying on it for controlling smart homes. That means today’s HomePod will become obsolete by the time smart homes are available.
For now, the real value of HomePod will lie in its audio quality. If ordinary people can tell the difference in audio quality, HomePod will likely sell like mad. If people can’t easily tell the difference in audio quality, then HomePod will likely grow slowly and steadily like the Apple Watch.
Either way, Apple is positioning HomePod for the long term so if you don’t see a need for HomePod right now, you probably don’t need one. Wait for the next version or two and then reconsider getting a HomePod. Unlike the Apple Watch that offers real-time health monitoring as its crucial feature, HomePod doesn’t offer a similar must-have feature that everyone needs. Instead, HomePod is a luxury item that’s worth watching for the future because one day it’s going to be critical to own and use. The time just may not be now.