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Apple's Risky Gambit to Redefine the Smart Speaker

By David Jones
Jun 7, 2017 3:05 PM PT
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Before Apple launched its long-awaited HomePod smart speaker at its annual developers conference earlier this week, the expectation was that it would unveil a sophisticated Echo killer that would redefine the landscape that Amazon has dominated, with Google playing catch-up.

"Just like iPod reinvented music in our pockets, HomePod is going to reinvent music in our homes," Apple SVP Phil Schiller told attendees at the Worldwide Developers Conference.

However, while the HomePod appears to be a well-designed, high end treat for loyal iTunes fans, Apple may have missed the mark in terms of creating a category leader that will become the center of the digital living room.

"Like any product Apple introduces, it will have unique features because Apple controls everything from the hardware design to the service," said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

However, "consumers will likely pay a premium in one form or another," he told the E-Commerce Times. "The real question is, can Apple step into this market with the HomePod and establish a dominant position like it did with the Apple Watch?"

As a smart speaker, the HomePod appears to be a technically sophisticated market entry. It features seven beam-forming tweeters, an upward facing woofer, and room-sensing technology that allows it to adjust its acoustics, depending on whether the device is at the center of a room or near a wall.

It is powered by Apple's A8 chip, the same one that is used in the flagship iPhone.

The speaker is sufficiently compact, at just below 7 inches in height, to fit comfortably on a coffee table, bookshelf or entertainment center.

The HomePod is designed to work with the Apple Music library, which has access to 40 million tracks and already knows the preferences of millions of consumers that stream their music through Apple.

Using the Siri built-in digital assistant, the speaker can deliver news, weather and sports, set reminders, send messages, and perform other tasks.

Customers with Apple's HomeKit can use the HomePod to control lights and thermostats, open garage doors and secure door locks.

Despite the wide capabilities of HomePod, Apple so far has not indicated that it will open the smart speaker ecosystem to third-party developers. Rather, the company seems intent on promoting the HomePod as a breakthrough audio device.

Crowded Market

The market for smart speakers is fairly new. Almost 11 million U.S. consumers own an Alexa-powered digital assistant speaker from Amazon, including the Echo, the Echo Dot and the Amazon Tap, according to Michael Levin, a partner at Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.

The brand has exploded since its 2014 launch, with consumer awareness increasing from about 20 percent in March of 2015 to about 86 percent by March 2017, according to CIRP.

Amazon sold a whopping 2.5 million units during the first quarter of this year, the firm estimated. The low-cost Echo Dot accounts for 52 percent of the Echo units in use -- in many cases in multiple rooms of the same household.

Apple's HomePod will be a serious contender in the smart-speaker market, said Mark Beccue, principal analyst at Tractica, but he added that unless it "proves to be a superior high-end" speaker system, its US$349 price will need to come down.

"The really compelling market for Apple will be current Apple users who can leverage the Apple ecosystem -- iTunes and the App Store -- for their speakers," Beccue told the E-Commerce Times. "iTunes and Apple Music provide a proven and leverageable content play for Apple with the Homepod."

Apple likely will widen and enhance the Siri SDK for developers in the App Store, he said.

Apple has taken a slightly different tack than Amazon and Google by positioning the HomePod as a high-end acoustic device that will appeal to the audiophile, suggested Paul Erickson, senior analyst for the connected home at IHS Markit.

"The depth of commands available for music playback utilizing Siri's voice interface trump that of Google and Amazon," he told the E-Commerce Times. "Given that music is one of several fundamental, high-utilization use cases for smart speakers, it is keenly targeted differentiation by Apple -- and a highlight of a competitive weakness of its competitors."

Still, Apple may have a hard time moving a significant number of units, given that Amazon's Echo is priced at $179 and the Amazon Dot at $49, while Google's Home is a modest $129, Erickson pointed out.

Considering likely seasonal promotions by rivals and third-party hardware costs, the HomePod could cost anywhere from two to eight times more than the competition.

Apple will be more competitive at the higher end of the spectrum, Erickson suggested.

The HomePod launch represents a "shot across the bow" at Sonos, which is a long-favored choice of iOS music enthusiasts for multiroom audio, he noted.

HomePod will be a challenger in Sonos territory, Erickson said, based on its cost, audio quality, selling proposition, decor-neutral styling, and automatic audio adjustment for the room.

It is similar to Sonus PLAY 5, the flagship smart speaker that the company launched in 2015, he pointed out.

Never Scared

For its part, Sonos doesn't appear to be unnerved. The company last year partnered with Amazon on a software integration through the Alexa Voice Service SDK, which allows customers with an Alexa-enabled device to control their Sonos sound system.

Sonos last year also announced partner integrations with several connected home providers, including Crestron, a developer of lighting, audiovisual and energy control software; Control4, a smart home software developer; and Deutsche Telecom's home automation platform Qivicon.

"It's great to see Apple and other big tech companies join our mission to fill every home with music," Sonos said, in a statement provided to the E-Commerce Times by spokesperson Dane Estes. "Since we're partners with all of them and agnostic in our approach, every innovation they bring to market enhances Sonos home sound systems."

Sonos will continue to build integrations that make it easy to add Sonos products to other devices, including voice assistants, the company said.

Flying somewhat under the radar, Harman Kardon is coming out with its own entry in the smart speaker category: Invoke, which uses Microsoft's Cortana digital assistant technology. It's expected this fall.

Invoke's capabilities, including its Sonique far-field voice technology, are similar to those of the Sonos and Apple speakers. There are seven microphones, three woofers, and three tweeters on the cylindrical device, offering what Harman Kardon considers true 360-degree sound.

The speaker is integrated with Skype, which Microsoft is promoting as a benefit for hands-free calling to landlines, mobile phones and other Skype-enabled devices.

Amazon hasn't been sitting on its hands in terms of innovation either. It recently announced two new additions to the Echo line: the Echo Look, a fashion assistant that is available by invitation only; and the Echo Show, a touchscreen device scheduled for release later this month.

The company this spring ceded to partner demands by making the Alexa 7-Mic Far Field Development Kit available to third-party hardware makers who wanted to build far-field voice operated products faster. Making sure to protect the integrity of its ecosystem, Amazon has made the kit available to commercial developers on an exclusive, invitation-only basis.

Google recently added additional features to Home, including appointment scheduling and hands-free calling. It has entered streaming music partnerships with Spotify, SoundCloud and Deezer.

Google also has 70 smart home partners working with Google Home and Android phones, including Honeywell, Logitech and August locks.


David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain's New York Business and The New York Times.


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What do you think of today's voice recognition technology?
It's great -- the tech has improved vastly in recent years.
It's the wave of the future, but quality is still hit or miss.
I like it for texting, especially when I'm driving.
I only use it when I have to, like with IVR systems.
I avoid using it, because most voice systems are still terrible.
It's an unnecessary frill that I can easily live without.