I've recently been thinking about the smart-speaker category, musing about Amazon's recently announced Echo Show, and speculating about if and when Apple would get into the game. Earlier this week, I got an answer when Apple announced the HomePod, a smart speaker with voice control powered by Siri. So, has the announcement of HomePod made my choice clear? Will I buy a HomePod, an Echo Show, or another smart-speaker?
Well. Its complicated.
Smart Speakers in Theory
In theory, smart speakers have several appealing features for me:
- Convenient access to cloud-based music services like Apple Music, Pandora, and Spotify. Being able to whisper an incantation into thin air, and have the speaker play pretty much any song I've ever heard means that I'll spend more time listening to and enjoying music.
- High quality audio in my great room, which is excellent for hosting parties, or just enjoying in the evenings after the kids have been put to bed.
- An always-on assistant for my home, with a massive library of integrations and home automation support. I can imagine bringing up recipes on a screen for reference in the kitchen while I cook, only by using my voice, or setting multiple cook timers, asking for conversions, etc.
On the other hand, there are some significant theoretical drawbacks, the most significant of which is security and privacy. Having an internet-connected microphone in my house that is always listening is a bit scary. Is my information safe? Is the company that I am sharing it with a good steward of my data?
HomePod has really muddied the waters for me. I absolutely love the convenience, integrations, features, developer story, and screen on the Echo Show, but the dismal audio quality and significant concerns with privacy and security give me pause. The Echo Show is also not particularly well integrated with Apple's ecosystem, in which I am thoroughly entrenched, though that seems to be changing.
The HomePod has addressed my privacy concern very effectively. Apple made it abundantly clear that they don't send any audio up to their servers until you say "Hey, Siri," and that all information is encrypted in transit, and is anonymized to protect its users. I trust Apple more than I trust Amazon, Google, or pretty much any other major technology and services company. They're interested in selling me their products to improve my life, not in sharing my information with advertisers, or more effectively mining my information to enhance its retail offerings.
Audio quality is also huge focus for Apple with the HomePod. In fact, their marketing site introduces it as "the new sound of home," and spends significant time and effort discussing the internal speakers and adaptive audio features that use its onboard processing to optimize the sound to the room. While there's no way to beat, or even match, a properly tuned multi-speaker audio system, I am betting that Apple's engineers can make the HomePod sound pretty great. Certainly, much better than the Echo. In addition, Apple has built in multi-room audio features that put competitors like Sonos to shame, thanks to tight integration with iOS.
So, HomePod addresses my two main concerns of Smart Speakers with ease! Yet, the HomePod leaves me very conflicted. Why? Because, frankly, its not particularly smart. I was expecting to hear about a total overhaul of Siri, focused on improving accuracy, opening up the platform to developers, and closing the gap with Alexa. Yet, the HomePod has, in many ways, delivered the "same old Siri," which has no developer story to speak of. The only integrations you'll find are those with HomeKit, which thus far hasn't really taken off. Meanwhile, the Alexa Skills library is growing at a massive clip.
Finally, the HomePod clocks in at $349. Ouch. The Echo series ranges from $49 for the Echo Dot, $179 for the full size Echo, and $229 for the Echo Show, which features a touch screen and an integrated HD video camera. Now, Apple can always demand a premium price point, and I have no doubt that the industrial design and engineering quality of the HomePod will put the Echo to shame, but given the feature disparity, I am a bit disappointed in the price.
Given the tradeoffs and price point of the HomePod, I am almost certain to pass on the first generation. If Apple puts significant time and effort into Siri and the developer story, that may change. Early signs from WWDC are that they're interested in opening up HomeKit more, so I'm optimistic. I'm also hopeful that Apple will eventually release a HomePod with a screen with integrated Facetime support, which would be ideal for my kitchen.
Conclusion? Well, I think that the smart speaker category is pretty nascent, and its going to take a few more years to shake out. Amazon has the early lead, and both Google and Apple now have entrants that are playing catch up with varying degrees of success. As of now, I'm sitting 2017 out to see how things change before committing to a platform.