Apple unveils HomePod smart speaker

Apple has officially entered the smart speaker market with the launch of its voice-controlled HomePod wireless speaker.

Apple is pushing it more as a music speaker that “reinvents music in the home”. Although the company was first to market with its Siri voice assistant in 2011, it has met with mixed reactions from pundits.

The seven-inch speaker was previewed on stage at Apple’s annual developer conference in San Jose, California.

“Apple reinvented portable music with iPod and now HomePod will reinvent how we enjoy music wirelessly throughout our homes,” said Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice-president of worldwide marketing. “HomePod packs powerful speaker technology, Siri intelligence and wireless access to the entire Apple Music library into a beautiful speaker that is less than seven inches tall, and can rock most any room with distortion-free music and be a helpful assistant around your home.”

HomePod features an Apple-designed woofer, a custom array of seven “beam-forming tweeters” to offer “incredible” directional control.

HomePod uses Siri voice assistant and is designed to work with an Apple music subscription.

Like its competitor models, Google Home and Amazon Echo, the HomePod speaker can respond to questions and control smart-home products, such as lighting and blinds. Remote access and home automation can also be provided through the Home app on iPhones and iPads.

Apple HomePod speaker
Apple HomePod speaker

Apple claimed Siri could even handle more complex questions, such as “Hey Siri, who’s the drummer in this?” when a song is playing.

The speaker also learns about the user’s personal music preferences and tastes to help them discover new music.

It features six microphones, which means that users can interact with the speaker from across the room, even when loud music is playing.

When asked in a Bloomberg TV interview whether Apple was late to the smart speaker market, chief executive Tim Cook said it wasn’t about being “first”.

“It’s about being the best and giving the user an experience that delights them every time,” he added. “We don’t let that impatience result in shipping something that is just not great.”

HomePod will be available from December, with initial launches in Australia, the UK and the US and will retail for US$349 (£270).

Simon Bryant, associate director at Futuresource Consulting, claimed that while Apple may have had its hand forced by competitors, its entry into the market could boost volumes. 

“Like many other audio and platform vendors Apple has been forced to act as its competitors are stealing the march in to people’s kitchens, bedroom and living rooms with their own VPA (Virtual Personal Assistants),” he explained. “History suggests Apple’s entry in to the market will lift overall market volumes and revenues, and it will also take share from incumbents. Apple uniquely can depend on big numbers at launch, and it also enjoys price elasticity meaning it can charge a significant premium and its loyal customer won’t flinch.”

However, Mr Bryant also argued that in order for the smart speaker market to be more than just a fad, companies will need to expand on the capabilities of VPAs in order to grow their relationships and loyalties with consumers.

The early success of smart speakers does not prove smart speakers, Voice or VPA’s have a long-term role to play in the home, the current market is driven by a fairly aggressive price-points coupled with a high degree of novelty appeal – there are many failed CE markets which shared these characteristics early in the market’s life – ultimately they were markets which witnessed dramatic growth and decline over a matter of a few years.

“VPAs are well positioned to be the next-generation interface, crossing over many verticals and applications. In short, the company that controls the user interface has an opportunity to influence their behaviour, choice of services and products as well as access to the user data that can be worth so much in so many ways. VPAs will give companies the chance to enhance their relationship with the consumer and establish leading brand positioning.