Apple said today that it would delay the launch of its HomePod smart speaker device until early 2018, saying in a statement that “we need more time” to complete the product. The HomePod was announced back in June at Apple’s WWDC keynote, and the original plan was to get the device on store shelves in time for the holiday season.
You can take Apple’s decision to push off the release in a couple of different ways. Below, Harry McCracken gives the optimistic take, while Mark Sullivan provides a more cynical view.
Better Right Than First
Harry McCracken: Whenever I hear about a tech company postponing a product’s launch on the grounds that it isn’t ready yet, a little voice in the back of my head stands up and cheers. The history of consumer technology abounds with examples of stuff that came out on time, more or less, but was rife with bugs or otherwise unsatisfying. That wastes everybody’s time. Tech companies that admit they misjudged their timetable may suffer momentary embarrassment and mess up their short-term financial projections, but they do it in the interest of serving customers.
You don’t have to delve very far into Apple history to find evidence of the wisdom of punting on a launch until the product is ready. Last year, the company’s AirPod wireless earbuds were originally due to ship in October—but when the month was almost over, the company said, as it has with HomePod, that it needed “a little more time” to finish up work on them. There were multiple theories about the reason for the delay, all involving the challenges of making the tiny stick-like headphones work reliably. But when AirPods finally did show up in December, they worked well—and people snapped them up so enthusiastically that Apple coudn’t keep them in stock.
The Early Announcement Blows Up
Mark Sullivan: I fully agree that it’s in Apple’s interest to release a complete, polished HomePod. After all, if the thing underwhelms the first customers who buy it, it may not get another chance. And we are talking about a platform war here.
The term “smart speaker” is misleading for this category, because the devices are really vehicles for the natural language personal digital assistants (such as Alexa and Siri) we’ve grown accustomed to relying on. Sure, these assistants can play music, but their biggest job is enabling us to control lots of other connected devices in the home using our voice. The number of controllable devices will continue to increase over time. So the decision to buy a smart speaker could lead you to buy other products that play well with that same platform and respond to the same assistant–in this case, Siri. There’s more at stake than the one-off sale of a single device.
And that’s part of the reason I believe Apple announced the HomePod so long before it was a finished product. Knowing that consumers now have multiple options when it comes to smart speakers, and that many of them would buy them during the holiday season, it may have sought to delay those buying decisions until it had its own smart speaker on the market. Consumers who were all set to buy an Amazon Echo or Google Home (and later, perhaps, other products that speak the same language) might have put off doing so until they could see what Apple had to offer.
I’m not sure Apple could have foreseen back in June that it would have to delay the product into next year. The company may have been able to release a basic, first-generation smart speaker–like the first versions of Amazon Echo and Google Home. But those companies released a whole new generation of smart speakers (and variations on smart speakers) this fall in anticipation of the holiday shopping season. They also introduced a new generation of features, like voice support for multiple accounts and more advanced connected home control features. Apple may have decided it needs more time to build those features into HomePod.
Amazon, Google, and Microsoft/Harman Kardon also released new products (the Amazon Echo 2, Google Home Max, and Invoke, respectively) this fall that, like the HomePod, emphasize high-quality audio, an area where Apple was clearly poised to be ahead of the competition as of its announcement last summer.
Still In Suspense
HM: My own advice to people who have been coveting a HomePod is to bide their time until it’s available before buying any product in its category. Put a raincheck under the Christmas tree if necessary! I suspect that Apple has enough of a critical mass of patient fans that missing this holiday season won’t cede the market to the Echo 2 or Home Max or some other high-end smart speaker.
For me, the aspect of the delay that’s most intriguing is that it means we’ll end the year without a fully formed sense of exactly what HomePod is. Back at WWDC, Apple’s explanation of the new device during the keynote and a listening session for journalists had a willfully incomplete feel to them: The company pitched the speaker as a Sonos-esque music machine tied to the Apple Music service and didn’t address the other potential implications of turning Siri into an ambient household presence. I even witnessed an Apple exec respond to reporters’ questions about HomePod’s capabilities by smiling enigmatically and saying there was more news to come.
At the time, I figured that Apple was holding back some nifty features to show off at a HomePod-centric event later in the year, just to whip up fresh excitement at an opportune time. The company may well hold such an event next year. But until it explains this new product in detail, the HomePod isn’t just late: It’s also a tad mysterious.