If you haven’t heard by now, Apple has pushed the release of the HomePod from the more advantageous Holiday sales season to sometime in early 2018. I can’t say this comes as a massive surprise, because there has been very little news on the device over the last month. Part of that is because of the massive wave of interest in the new iPhone X, but if it had been coming out in December, we would have seen some leaks by now. This is definitely unfortunate for Apple, as they will certainly lose potential sales in a market where they are already later to arrive than usual. However, the why is more interesting than the what in this situation.
While most major tech outlets reported on the HomePod’s delay yesterday, Gene Munster from Loup Ventures had a different take that I found interesting. Yes, I know. This is the same Gene Munster that held fast to the belief that Apple would produce a television with integrated Apple TV long after it was obvious to everyone else that it wasn’t happening. Despite that, I think he might be on to something related to the HomePod’s Siri and digital assistant capability that’s worth looking into.
Mr Munster believes that the delay has to do with Apple re-thinking its modest approach to Siri as a digital assistant in the initial rollout of the HomePod. During the product’s unveiling at this year’s WWDC, Phil Schiller did his best to hedge Apple’s bets on Siri’s capabilities beyond music. The HomePod was billed as a higher quality intelligent music playback device first, second, and third. Everything else mentioned, including its capability as a HomeKit hub, was well down the list of features. This definitely didn’t go unnoticed in the media.
This approach wasn’t surprising to me at the time because of the issues that came up during early rollout of Apple’s last new hardware platform- the Apple Watch. Apple tried to do too much in watchOS 1 with underpowered version 1 hardware. They placed too much emphasis on apps and messaging when the early OS wasn’t really ready for it. Apple re-focused and overcame these issues to completely take over the wearables space, but those growing pains likely influenced the gameplan for the HomePod’s rollout,
However, there is a major difference between the market situations of wearables and home digital assistant products. The major reason that Apple was able to regroup and hit their stride with the Watch was because they entered the market early enough that no one else had gained any major traction, either. While other vendors scaled back or gave up, Apple doubled down and were able to quickly gain a dominant position in the smartwatch field.
The market for home assistants is NOTHING like this today. Amazon has been their learning and growing for over two years, and has an extremely capable and refined ecosystem of Alexa-enabled products. Google has also come out with a product that works well and has clear head start on Apple, as well as a superior AI and machine learning foundation behind it. Apple isn’t walking into the smartwatch market circa 2015 with the HomePod. They don’t have the same kind of room for error this time around, and I’m sure they know that. I have to believe that has a lot to do with this delay. If that is the case and they are taking this time to refine and improve it before initial release, I am all for it.
Mr Munster has this to say on the subject:
Did Apple make the right tradeoffs with HomePod? We think so – the damage to the brand as a result of shipping a half-baked product is greater than the potential benefit of pushing it out in time to capture holiday sales. The level of connectivity in Apple’s device ecosystem leads us to believe that HomePod will deliver a superior experience, and loyal Apple consumers will be rewarded for waiting. And the loyal Apple user base would have made up the vast majority of 2017 HomePod sales anyway. In the same Bloomberg interview post-WWDC, Cook added, “For us, it’s not about being first, it’s about being the best.”
I will say that I think Munster is letting his fanboy show a bit too much here. No matter what adjustments and improvements that Apple is able to make to the HomePod before release, it isn’t going to match what Alexa and Google Assistant can do out of the gate. Not even close. Apple has finally gotten serious about AI and machine learning over the last year, but make no mistake- they are still behind by a wide margin right now, and it will take time and an unwavering commitment for them to close the gap. Apple fans need to understand this right off the bat.
All that said, Apple has to make sure that whatever the HomePod does software-wise at release, it does it the best that Siri and Apple Music are capable of. There is a difference between perfection and polish, and what Apple needs to focus on for HomePod version 1.0 is polish. THIS is where I think Gene Munster has a point. Apple isn’t going to have the best Home Assistant in the market day one, but they should have the best experience in terms of music quality and native music service and experience. If they can press those advantages while quickly improving the rest, then they should be able to carve out a place in this market from which to grow. If Apple’s delay is about making these things a reality rather than trying to cash in on Holiday sales, then I’m all for it.
What do you think about the HomePod’s delayed release? Are you still on board with seeing what Apple can do with it, or have you already moved on to Amazon’s Alexa ecosystem or Google Home? Let me know in the Comments section below, on Flipboard, on our Facebook page, or on Twitter @iPadInsightBlog.