I’ve seen an interesting combination of concern, complaints, dismissiveness, and derision over the HomePod across Twitter, Apple blogs, and tech sites over the past few days. The preorder and announcement of the final release date for the device, as well as a lack of any other substantive Apple news at the moment seem to have stoked the fires of discussion and opinion.
I can understand many of the reasons, and I even agree with many of you that Siri isn’t on par with other digital assistants in many ways, that the HomePod’s high price could be a limiting factor, and that it is showing up more than fashionably late to a fast-moving party. However, despite the concerns and complaints, the reasons behind the design and focus of the HomePod still make sense if you look at Apple’s recent hardware and software efforts.
No matter what you think about the connected and intelligent speaker competition, it is easy to see that Apple is taking a very different approach with the HomePod. The fact that they are focusing on far better sound quality at a much higher price will likely limit the appeal of the device, and that is obviously a source of many of the complaints and negative predictions. However, while the reasons for concern are legitimate, what I find short-sighted is the common assertion that Apple is somehow oblivious to this. I think they are fully aware that they have limited the mainstream appeal and potential of this first foray into connected speakers. Here’s why:
They have learned from recent missteps with new products
Take a look back at three recent new hardware and software releases. On one hand, you have Apple News and Apple Music, both of which got off to very rocky starts after release. Both apps lacked focus and clear organization and were critically panned. However, within a year, both were completely redesigned from the ground up and the prevailing opinions about them changed. Both apps are now viewed in a largely positive light with continually growing user bases.
The Apple Watch may have been at least modestly successful at release, but that was partly based on how poor the competition was. There were still plenty of complaints over the muddled early interface and the poor performance third party apps early on. Again, Apple moved quickly to improve this new device and interface, with two updates to watchOS within the first year. The result was a completely different user experience that was more closely tied to iOS, and a new focus on what turned out to be the Watch’s biggest strength- health and fitness.
Apple has also learned to use analytics and feedback to make the right improvements
This ties directly into the point above. Apple was able to iterate quickly and revamp three mediocre products into three strong ones within a year was because they have altered their traditional approach of iterating and changing products very slowly over long periods of time. Even more important, it seems that they have learned to use feedback and device and software usage analytics to figure out what their users want and refine and re-focus their products around those elements. This is how Apple was able to not just move fast to improve these three products, but even more importantly, move smart.
What does this mean for the HomePod?
Apple hasn’t always done things this way, so I think the tech press and tech enthusiasts are still catching up with the shift in approach. However, there is a consistent pattern emerging that shouldn’t be ignored. I firmly believe that Apple took these two lessons and applied them to the design and focus of the HomePod. This is why I said that Apple was aware that they were limiting the overall sales appeal of the HomePod.
Similar to the recent AirPods, Apple is releasing a piece of hardware with obvious limitations into a crowded marketplace. If you think back, there were a lot of negative comments about the AirPods before release, as well as several predictions of failure based on looks, cost, and sound quality. However, in the cases of both the AirPods and HomePod, Apple focused the devices around areas where the company is strong, and where the hardware can excel. This isn’t an accident. Music and hardware design are two of Apple biggest current strengths and they are aware that their hardcore fans and users will pay a premium for their devices. While the HomePod’s higher price will limit its mainstream appeal more than the AirPods, it will still sell and the core principle behind the device is sound.
Lack of intelligence?
I was right there with everyone else after the HomePod announcement at WWDC, complaining about the way that Apple consciously de-emphasized Siri’s capabilities as an intelligent assistant on the device. I saw it as an admission that Siri still wasn’t up to the task, and in hindsight, I still believe that to be the case. It is not yet capable of carrying the HomePod. However, stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, I think this de-emphasis might be the right way to go for version one of the HomePod. Despite the fact that it is primarily a music device, people are still going to use Siri extensively on the HomePod because it is the primary interface for controlling the device. Despite the lack of emphasis, they will also use its assistant and home automation features, as well.
By emphasizing the sound quality and music playback functions of the HomePod, I think Apple is hoping to sell them to users who will ultimately be satisfied with the first version of the device, despite its inherent shortcomings. However, I think they are also hoping to use it as a Trojan Horse for improving Siri in the long run. Despite the device’s focus on user privacy, Apple is still going to get a completely new and different type of usage data back from this new platform. People use intelligent speakers very differently from their computers, phones, and tablets, so this could ultimately benefit Siri’s usefulness if, and this is a big if considering how long Apple has allowed Siri to flounder, Apple can take this new data stream and follow through making the right improvements.
This is a sound approach that certainly worked for the competition. If you look back at Amazon’s first Echo, the sound quality wasn’t good, it was far more limited in scope, and didn’t have any of the third party integrations early on. However, it was good enough at its core functionality as an assistant that people began buying it and talking it up. The fact that Amazon could constantly put the device in potential buyer’s faces obviously helped to spur sales, and Amazon used all of that data pouring in from its customers to quickly morph the device and its Alexa digital assistant into something far more powerful.
So the only things that separate Apple from Amazon’s initial approach to this market is time and the hardware’s area of strength and focus at release. They are taking a similar first step, but I think many don’t see it because it’s not a sales and marketing model they associate with Apple. However, if you look at streaming video content, another new direction for the company, you will see them taking the same approach there, as well. I don’t think you are going to find very many fans of fans of Planet of the Apps, and Carpool Karaoke wasn’t much better in a longer format than the original. While it’s easy to throw stones at these early efforts, if you take a small step back in time, you will find Netflix starting out with Lilyhammer and Amazon with titles such as Alpha House. The success that both hav achieved certainly weren’t evident after such modest starts.
Again, people don’t think of Apple as a company that will iterate quickly, but just look at what they have been doing since these first two mediocre shows. They have hired several new executives with legitimate industry experience to head their video efforts. Now they are signing up and ordering shows from people like Steven Spielberg, Damien Chazelle, Ronald Moore, Resse Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston. This is a big and very fast step up, but Apple has the money and the name to pull off big moves if they choose to out their full weight behind them. The quality and delivery method of the finished products remains to be seen, but Apple’s commitment to and focus on this area is beyond doubt at this point.
What will happen?
Will Apple iterate quickly and find success with the HomePod? Will they pour the same kind of focus and resources they are putting into video content into improving Siri? Time will tell. There is no way to know how things will go for Apple with the new HomePod in the future. While I think there is now a track record of Apple moving faster to improve products and looking at user data and listening to their customers to adapt their hardware and software, there is an even longer track record of poor leadership behind and inadequate progress with Siri. Which one is going to win out here? Honestly, there is no way to know that right now.
Apple will have to put more emphasis on Siri, AI, and machine learning than they ever have before to really push their in-home efforts forward. While there is some evidence that they have started down this road, it will take more than they are doing right now to start to close the gap with the competition. What gives me a little hope that they can turn the tide and at least get Siri onto the right path is that there is ample evidence above of changes that Apple has already made in other areas. If they apply those same principles to Siri and the HomePod going forward, then they at least have a chance.
For any of you getting ready to label me as an Apple apologist, I’m not predicting wild success for the HomePod, or that it is a foregone conclusion that Apple can make fast changes as successfully as they did with the Apple Watch. They will try, but there is absolutely no guarantee that this same approach will work to make the HomePod and future home products better as digital assistants. I am just pointing out that there shouldn’t be any mystery as to why Apple designed the HomePod the way they did. This design and focus on Apple’s core strengths is no accident and they should at least set the right expectations for buyers. It will be interesting to see if Apple can parlay that into something more in the future, and build the HomePod into something more than the niche music-focused device that the original is.