This week at WWDC, Apple’s annual conference for making product announcements, interacting with developers, and sporting turtlenecks, the company announced its first new product line in over two years, the smart speaker awkwardly dubbed the HomePod.
Given the lack of platform dynamics behind it and stiff competition from the Amazon Echo and Google Home, it’s unclear if the HomePod will be a winner or a dud. The new device aims to outperform its standing competitors with a superior sound quality and by integrating Siri, the well-known (and oft maligned) voice assistant baked into iOS.
This seven-inch tall speaker will retail for $349 and come equipped with automatic room-sensing abilities, a six microphone array, and excellent woofers for better sound quality. By contrast, the Echo goes for $180 and the Home runs around $130.
But the price isn’t really what matters. What does matter is the network of developers that’ll inevitably power the user experience – in other words, the development platform.
Are You There, Siri? It’s Me, the Platform
When Apple announced it would include Siri in the HomePod, it almost felt like an afterthought. There wasn’t much excitement in the announcement, or many details given, but a little more has been shared since the initial announcement.
Regarding the HomePod, developers are kind of hamstrung, still limited to the same capabilities they were given for Siri on the iPhone. They can build very limited functions for a small amount of apps or features, narrowing the interactive potential for the HomePod.
This can play out in one of two ways – it’ll either be a success or failure.
First, the sunny side. Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi seems to believe Apple has a plan, a deliberative reason for keeping the development environment so limited. According to Milanesi, Apple is very concerned with overwhelming users with a plethora of possibilities.
She argues that bad experiences turn off users from digital voice assistants, making it incredibly hard to bring them back. Instead, it’s much easier to create new users out of populations that have never tried out voice before.
In tandem with limiting outside parties’ capabilities, Apple is being Apple and giving itself better development tools than it is for anyone else. A great example is severely hampering the functions available to Spotify, while making Apple Music much more interactive for developers and users.
Strategies like this might do well to shore up Apple’s products and services, but they ultimately undercut the potential for user acquisition, which would only make sense if Apple’s undergoing a learning period before expanding the permissions and functionality to all.
The Race Is Already In Full Swing
Which leads me to the downside of Apple’s approach. If Apple is just now learning about how users interact with a smart speaker, the company is woefully behind Amazon and Google, the two leaders in the voice race.
Not only did Amazon and Google launch open development environments, they also opened the use of the voice assistant to virtually anything. Back in April, Amazon announced that Alexa could be programmed into the hardware device of the developer’s choosing. Google followed suit a week later, announcing the same thing for Assistant.
These moves were smart. Not only can a developer make a voice-controlled alarm clock or cocktail bar, Google and Amazon can reap user data from these new sources to better improve Assistant and Alexa, respectively., which will in turn bolster sales of the Home and Echo, also respectively.
Since Apple is building yet another closed system, it won’t find the same economies of scale that Amazon and Google enjoy, thus putting more pressure on its slow and steady strategy to play out.
As well, Amazon and Google have launched mobile apps for operating the voice assistant and the smart speakers, which Apple hasn’t announced. This seems really unusual considering Apple did the same for the Apple Watch and also turned iMessage into a development platform.
Sounds Like Apple’s a Speaker Company Now
Given Apple’s signalling, it feels like the baked-in digital assistant is secondary to the fact that it’s a speaker. The head honchos in Cupertino are more focused on giving its customers an unparalleled sound, which means the HomePod is actually competing with Sonos and Bose products.
That means the HomePod is a linear play – and a commoditized one.
The moment HomePod gets traction from the sound quality, Google or Amazon can partner with Bose or Sonos to launch more souped-up version of the Home and Echo, taking on HomePod directly and winning out thanks to the development platform backing it up.
As well, a clever developer-engineer could easily create her own high-end smart speaker powered by Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa since they both have open software development kits (SDKs).
The only other boon to the HomePod is its connectivity with HomeKit, Apple’s toolkit for creating and operating a smart home. Users can easily turn off the lights or adjust the thermostat in their homes using HomePod, but this is also not supremely unique.
Both Google and Amazon have smart home products that are connected to their corresponding smart speaker, from Nest thermostats to Philips multi-hue bulbs.
Hear That? It’s a Dud Blowing Up
The chief reason HomePod will sell is because it’s an Apple product and the company has built a durable brand that translates to sales figures rather reliably, Apple Watch notwithstanding. Second to that, it’s possible that some savvy customers will see the potential of HomeKit and buy a unit for that future.
It’s difficult to give a prognosis of a product right at launch, but Apple is smart and well-resourced. It’s built some of the most successful platforms and most transformational products, so the HomePod launch feels lacking in luster and vision.
The lack of an effectual development platform won’t draw new users who want to do virtually anything with their voices and Apple is not renowned for its search power, while Google and Amazon have been ruling voice.
Speaking of those two, the Echo and Home account for nearly 95% of all smart speaker users and have a near two-year lead on the HomePod. At the HomePod’s premium price point of $349, it seems unlikely many users will accept such a heft price tag in order to switch over. It just looks like a bad business move.
While the voice market hasn’t calcified, there’s only room for one or two companies to dominate – don’t forget that platforms tend to have winner-take-all dynamics. Apple’s slow and steady strategy might have ultimately yielded good returns, but it’s entering the race far too late to justify itself.
The HomePod is likely to be a dud, one that drags down Apple’s sales figures and hinders its ability to seize on this new market. The devil is in the lack of platform thinking.