On February 9, 2018, Apple launched its much-anticipated HomePod speaker, a device with impressive audio capabilities. The HomePod is currently only compatible with Apple Music, and although this is a limiting factor, it won't stop dedicated Apple fans from rushing out to buy the device. Apple must now expand its ecosystem, both around audio and the smart home, to attract the broader iPhone customer base.
Apple's focus is providing a best-in-class music experience
Apple claims to have spent over five years developing the HomePod – and it shows. When some vendors talk about smart speakers, they mean a device that provides AI assistant features in the form of a speaker, but Apple has focused on using smart technology to create a great-sounding speaker that also has home AI assistant capability.
The HomePod speaker is fitted with a single subwoofer (with 20mm of movement) and seven beamforming tweeters, providing a rich and clear sound anywhere in the room. It is powered by Apple's A8 chip and continually tunes audio to match the type of music, optimizing the output. Like the Google Home Max speaker, the HomePod can detect where it is positioned in the room and change the output levels accordingly. Whether placed in the center of the room, in a corner, or even on a bookshelf, the HomePod is designed to continue to offer the best experience.
The HomePod is designed to work exclusively with Apple Music. Of course, with such tight integration between software and hardware, it does this well. Other than having to say "Hey Siri" at the start of every command, using voice to interact with the HomePod feels natural, and, thanks to all that metadata stored in Apple Music, the system responds intelligently to requests. However, having such a closed ecosystem does have its limitations. For example, the HomePod can play radio, but only that offered through Apple Music. So, if asked to play the BBC's Radio 1, the HomePod will play Apple's Radio 1 playlist, not the actual radio station. Third-party radio and music sources can be played through the speaker, but only through the AirPlay feature of an iPhone or iPad (which of course isn't as easy as just asking Siri to do it). Ovum expects Apple to gradually expand its HomePod ecosystem based on customer demand and where it sees a good strategic fit. Therefore, while the BBC could be added, the inclusion of Spotify is less likely.
The HomePod works with HomeKit to link with smart home devices, which again currently provides a more limited ecosystem than seen in similar initiatives from Apple's main rivals, Amazon and Google. Ovum expects Apple to continue to expand this ecosystem based on customer demand, but in a measured fashion so that Apple can control the user experience.
There are advantages to having a more closed ecosystem, as demonstrated when setting up the HomePod. To install a HomePod, it's a question of lifting the speaker out of the box, plugging it in, and holding an iOS device over the top for a few seconds, then it's ready to use. There's no need to download apps, enter passwords, or mess about with preferences or other settings. Such convenience may only be achievable thanks to Apple's closed ecosystem – but there are still lessons all players can learn here.
"Apple betting on the HomePod to close the gap with Spotify," CES003-000088 (January 2018)
Smart Home Vendor Tracker: 2H17, CES006-000005 (January 2018)
Smart Home: Apple outsources smart-home strategy to HomeKit partners for now, TE0004-001098, (October 2016)
Michael Philpott, Senior Practice Leader, Consumer Services