Among all the new device announcements at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference this week, the HomePod connected speaker was the most unusual.
WWDC is an event for software developers, and in recent years hardware reveals haven’t been part of the agenda. But unlike, say, the new Macs that might appeal to people who code on MacOS devices, or the new iPads that might spur more tablet-optimized apps, HomePod has no clear developer tie-in. None of the details Apple announced onstage involved third-party integrations. The company also doesn’t plan to launch the $349 speaker until December, and isn’t taking preorders now. It has even suggested that it hasn’t revealed all of HomePod’s features yet.
So why did Apple bother announcing HomePod at all? The obvious answer is that it’s throwing a bone to fans who’ve been eying an Amazon Echo or Google Home, or to investors who want to see Apple compete with those products.
But those aren’t satisfying explanations. Apple generally doesn’t cater to Wall Street’s whims, and probably doesn’t care about the small number of WWDC watchers who might be swayed from buying an Echo or Google Home in the next few months. Besides, neither of those smart speakers integrate with Apple Music, so they don’t serve Apple die-hards anyway. There has to be another reason for Apple to risk tipping off its competitors six months before launch.
The most likely explanation for Apple’s early HomePod reveal is messaging. Even before WWDC, news of a premium Apple speaker had started to leak, and since Apple probably won’t hold any other press events until the fall, WWDC was the company’s best chance to get in front of the rumors and spin public perception. That meant downplaying HomePod’s integration with Siri–arguably an inferior assistant compared to its rivals–and playing up its premium audio features.
Siri’s Missing Skills
Had Apple waited longer to reveal HomePod, supply chain leaks might have painted a more complete picture of the hardware. We might have learned what it looked like, gotten more details on its tweeters and subwoofer, or received a more definitive answer on whether it included a touchscreen. What we wouldn’t have received is Apple’s own pitch on the speaker’s superior quality, or positive impressions from reporters who’ve listened to it themselves.
More importantly, we might have assumed that Siri played a starring role as an ambient, all-purpose voice assistant for the home. Instead, Apple talked about Siri’s musical savvy, but barely mentioned its other skills. After the keynote, Siri wasn’t even part of the demos that Apple gave to the press.
This is framing by necessity. Right now, Siri is not on equal footing with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. It can’t activate third-party music services like those assistants can, nor can it handle multiple user accounts or send video to TVs, like Google Home can. And while Google and Amazon are both tackling the tough challenge of notifications on smart speakers, Apple hasn’t mentioned any similar plans.
Siri’s support for third-party services is also much narrower in scope than its rivals. While Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa both allow developers to create all kinds of conversational skills, Apple is taking a more cautious approach that limits third-party Siri access to a handful of specific uses, such as notes and ride sharing. It’s not even clear whether those interactions will be available through HomePod.
In Apple’s framing, focusing on those deficiencies would be missing the point: HomePod isn’t an assistant that lives in the kitchen, like the Echo, but a jukebox that resides in the living room. In that scenario, Siri is just a supporting character. And while Siri’s role may eventually grow, in the meantime any comparisons to other smart speakers–by consumers, investors, or pundits–become easier for Apple to deflect.
The early reveal may be unusual, but it’s not unheard of from Apple. The company announced the Apple Watch seven months before launch, presumably to get ahead of leaks, and as Daring Fireball‘s John Gruber pointed out around that time, Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone a half-year before shipping to prevent FCC filings from spoiling the surprise.
As with those earlier products, HomePod represents a new product category, with loads of potential and lots to explain. But it’s also one in which the competition is already gaining traction, with an estimated 10 million Echo devices sold in the United States to date. It’s all the more important, then, for Apple to try and set expectations now, before consumers start forming too many of their own.