Apple’s entry into the smart speaker segment with its HomePod was both something of a surprise and a move that made sense at the same time. It makes sense because voice assistants are maturing, artificial intelligence and machine learning are the future, and connected devices are… connected. It was a surprise when it was first introduced last year, perhaps because Apple’s a little late to game.
One would argue that it’s never a question of being first but being better, for Apple, but it entered a market pioneered and dominated by Amazon’s Alexa-powered devices. The Amazon Echo family holds about 73 percent of the smart speaker market, while Google Home takes around 14 percent.
After going on sale in January, the USD349 smart speaker looked to be heading for an encouraging start. Pre-orders were reportedly strong, and the new-kid-on-the-block managed to grab a third of the US smart speaker market based on unit sales (Data: Slice Intelligence).
However, sales started to decline by the time HomePods arrived in stores. From capturing 10 percent of sales in its first 10 weeks of sales, numbers slipped to around four percent three weeks after launch.
So far, around 600,000 units of HomePods have been sold. Analysts says Apple will probably sell seven million HomePods this year, and close to 11 million in 2019.
In contrast, Amazon will sell 29 million Echos this year and 39 million in 2019. On the other hand, Google will push 18 million Google Homes this year and around 32 million next year.
Apple touts the HomePod’s superior sound quality, and for the most part this matters if the HomePod was “just a speaker.” Many consumers expected the HomePod to be much more of an Echo or Google Home than a Sonos.
The HomePod has the potential to be much more, of course. Like the Echo or Google Home, it could answer questions, tell the weather, check for traffic, read the news, order pizza, and so much more.
Apple has Siri, the App Store, HomeKit, a plethora of devices and services, to make the HomePod the centre of home. At this point in time, the iPhone looks to be Apple’s centre of the universe.
Unfortunately, the HomePod is currently limited to playing tunes from Apple Music, controlling some Apple-optimised smart home appliances and sending messages via iPhone.
While a crippled feature set makes the speaker a deal-breaker (it rhymes!), the biggest drawback may be the HomePod’s price: USD349. Compare that to the USD50 Echo Dot or USD130 Google Home, the HomePods starts to look like a bad deal.
But perhaps it’s premature to write off the HomePod. It is after all a version one device. Also, it’s a nascent market for both smart speakers, voice assistants, AI and machine learning. And let’s not forget we’re talking about Apple here. A company that has an incredible amount of resources to make it work.
Also, it’s interesting to note that Apple poached Google’s artificial intelligence chief, John Giannandrea, to lead its AI strategy.
Apple’s got plenty of ground to make up but the journey’s just begun.
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