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Apple’s HomePod Is Caught Between Alexa and a Hard Place

The company is pitching its product as a luxury accessory, not a home assistant

(Apple/Ringer illustration)
(Apple/Ringer illustration)

It’s impressive how little information Apple can convey in a new product’s promotional video. The latest example is the HomePod, the company’s entrance into the competitive market for home personal assistants. Rumors of an Apple smart speaker have been floating around for at least a year, so the fact that the company unveiled one at its 2017 Worldwide Developers Conference wasn’t a shock. But Apple is arriving to this party late, with seemingly little to show for its tardiness. The HomePod video, about 30 seconds long, simply pans lustfully around the device’s curves while EDM music blares. Given no other context, the only fact you can glean about Apple’s next big product line is that it appears to come in black and white.

Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller filled in some, but not all, of the blanks. The device is being pitched as a music speaker first and foremost, with the company claiming it will offer better audio quality than the Amazon Echo and use “spatial awareness” technology to adjust how it projects sound based on its location in a room. Tight integration with Apple Music will let subscribers boot up millions of tracks on the device and ask Siri questions about the songs as they play. (Google has been doing this since at least 2015.) In addition to playing music, the device will field other tasks like sounding alarms, reading the news, and parroting trivia. But there’s no word on whether the speaker will be compatible with streaming services like Spotify (Apple’s website only mentions Apple Music) or encourage third-party experimentation like Amazon’s Skills Store for its own assistant does. More details are sure to be revealed before the gadget’s December launch.

Watching Apple’s short HomePod teaser, my mind immediately leaped to the debut video for Amazon Echo, which was probably as far afield of an Apple ad as you can get before entering local-car-dealership territory. Over the course of three excruciatingly quiet minutes (there’s no background music), a wholesome suburban family curiously inspects their latest cylindrical gadget, the Echo, and its robotic voice assistant, Alexa. Echo is run through a gauntlet of boring, staged domestic tasks. Mom asks it to add an item to her shopping list while she’s cooking, Dad asks it to turn off its alarm as he rolls over in bed, Cute Kid A wants it to “play rock music,” and Cute Kid B asks it to tell a joke. Advertisements are supposed to convince you that if you buy a thing, you will become smarter and happier and maybe get laid somehow — Echo merely posited that it could make the boring parts of your day somewhat more efficient. The commercial was so awkward that Amazon appears to have wiped it from the internet (though a number of parody videos floating around capture the gist of the original spot).

And yet the Amazon Echo has been a big success, selling millions of units and forcing Apple, the preeminent consumer electronics firm of our time, to scramble to launch a me-too product. Lots of people who don’t care about having the latest hot gadget love the Echo, largely because its user experience is framed around helping people achieve simple daily tasks. Instead of pitching the Echo as something cool, Amazon pitched it as something useful across a number of dimensions. The iPhone became the most successful gadget of all time for the same core reason.

With HomePod, though, Apple appears to be taking a narrower approach. While the device will have many of the typical digital assistant features, Apple is playing up the fact that it “rocks the house” as a music speaker, and Schiller spent much more time crowing about the device’s technical specs than how it might improve the lives of non-audiophiles. It all sounds very fine, and it will almost certainly be packaged in an attractive, high-quality build that’s intuitive to use. (I mean, it better be — this thing costs $349, much more than the $180 Echo and the Google Home, which is currently priced at $109.) But these assistant devices, at least in the way Amazon and Google have envisioned them, are supposed to evolve into digital nerve centers that will eventually serve as voice-activated control panels for the entire home. Marketing the Apple version as a Really Dope Bluetooth Speaker feels a little lacking in ambition.

Based on what we’ve heard so far, Apple appears to be leaning on its music bona fides as a crutch, not a game-changing advantage. As more of our lives are organized by powerful cloud-based platforms, Apple’s ability to seamlessly organize all the data stored on your Mac and your iPhone becomes less valuable. Amazon has woven itself tightly into both the digital and physical lives of millions of people, meaning its assistant can help out with a wider swath of vital daily activities. Google is vacuuming up a massive trove of user data that should help it build the smartest AI brain of any of the major competitors, creating an assistant that is highly flexible. Apple appears to be positioning HomePod as a luxury lifestyle product (like its AirPods). That’s great if you’re already invested in the company’s ecosystem, but not compelling enough to demand the entire tech sector’s attention the way the iPhone and iPad did.

When Apple finds ways to make previously obtuse technologies understandable to tech nerds and novices alike, style becomes substance. But Amazon’s Echo has already invaded the suburbs and Google’s AI is achieving new learning milestones every month. Those companies are building appliances, whereas Apple is framing its very similar competitor as a mere accessory. The creator of the iPod has used music as a backdoor route to tech dominance before — HomePod’s name reflects that heritage — but in 2017, the same song and dance may not be as effective.