Apple isn’t exactly known for inventing new product categories from the ground up. Rather, the tech behemoth tends to take existing ideas, perfect the user experience, polish up the design, and use its marketing muscle to sell them to a wider swath of the public. But when Apple unveiled its new HomePod smart speaker at WWDC yesterday, I couldn’t shake this weird, deja vu feeling.
Where have I seen this before?
A couple of places: HomePod borrows heavily from the functional concept and even the marketing language of music-streaming hardware pioneer Sonos. And while it’s clearly a direct shot at Amazon’s Echo, I couldn’t help but notice that its design felt familiar too. Whyd, a French startup, debuted its voice-controlled smart speaker last year. And it looks almost exactly like the new HomePod.
Not only does the HomePod (like other gadgets before it) mimic the Wi-Fi-connected, multi-room, high-quality audio speaker concept that Sonos created years ago, the imagery and wording used on stage at WWDC feels like it was lifted directly from the Santa Barbara, California company’s marketing playbook. CEO Tim Cook’s vow to “reinvent home music” makes sense given the HomePod’s intended use case, but these words could just as easily have appeared in Sonos’s 2013 advertising campaign to “fill your home with music” or its more recent campaign about fixing “the silent home.”
Of course, both products are speakers that are designed for use in the home, so the inclusion of the words “home” and “music” in Apple’s unveil seems like an almost unavoidable coincidence. But it might feel more innocent if Apple weren’t touting a spatially aware, room-tuning feature that looks a lot like the TruePlay technology Sonos rolled out with its Play:5 speaker in 2015. Granted, Apple achieves this acoustic-tuning feature using microphones built into the speaker, rather than using the mic on the iPhone as Sonos does. But the concept—and the graphics used by Apple to illustrate it onstage—feel familiar.
A Similar Cylinder
The HomePod even takes on a similar form factor as the entry level Sonos Play:1 speaker (or, as some have pointed out, a jumbo-size roll of toilet paper). But even more uncanny is its resemblance to the Whyd speaker released last year. The two speakers share almost exactly the same rounded-edge, cylindrical shape, with a 360-degree mesh around the exterior and a sold, plastic top. Again, it could be a coincidence, but almost everything thing else about the HomePod feels like it was lifted directly from another product. It’s almost as though the product team said, “All right, we don’t have a lot of time. What are our favorite features of smart speakers and wireless Hi-Fi products on the market? Let’s just combine those and put Siri inside.”
Such mimicry comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with Apple’s history. Steve Jobs famously borrowed ideas for the Macintosh graphical interface from Xerox PARC in the 1980s. The iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player, but it hit a new sweet spot in terms of how compact and well designed it was. Same with the iPhone. When the iPad shipped in 2010, it quickly commanded 83% of the tablet market, according to IDC. Again, it wasn’t the first of its kind, but Apple gave the tablet just enough polish to dominate the category. And subsequent tablets, just like smartphones, were certainly inspired by Apple’s design.
But this is different. New Apple hardware doesn’t typically look exactly like that of existing competitors. And in terms of functionality, there’s very little here that the Amazon Echo and Sonos don’t already do. Just swap out Alexa for Siri.
Of course, there are differences. Sonos doesn’t have voice control (yet—the company is working on integrating with Alexa) and early reports suggest that the HomePod could handily beat the Echo in terms of sound quality. The HomePod is a more expensive offering than both the Amazon Echo and entry-level Sonos Play:1 (The Whyd speaker might need to rethink its $500 price point).
From what Apple has revealed so far, HomePod will only work with Apple Music at first. Pretty much every other wireless and smart speaker on the market supports a wide range of music services, be it through Bluetooth connectivity or natively on their respective platforms. Unlike Sonos and the Echo, the HomePod supports AirPlay, making it easy to pair with an Apple TV streaming box.
HomePod’s potential impact and level of innovation will depend largely on what happens inside the device after it ships: What will Siri be able to do? What additional HomeKit partners are lined up? Will Apple be able to adjust the quality of the speaker through software updates? Details like this will be crucial. But based on what’s been revealed so far, the HomePod isn’t bringing much to the table that we haven’t tasted before.