The problem with Apple’s HomePod has never been its sound. When it was released, pretty much everybody who reviewed the HomePod said it was the best-sounding smart speaker you could buy, and an exhaustive HomePod review posted on an audiophile subreddit thread went viral, saying:
“I am speechless. The HomePod actually sounds better than the KEF X300A. If you’re new to the Audiophile world, KEF is a very well respected and much-loved speaker company. I actually deleted my very first measurements and re-checked everything because they were so good, I thought I’d made an error. Apple has managed to extract peak performance from a pint-sized speaker, a feat that deserves a standing ovation. The HomePod is 100% an Audiophile grade Speaker.”
It’s been a year-and-half (a little bit more, actually) since Apple released its first-and-only smart speaker and it hasn’t had the stellar success we’ve come to expect with Apple hardware. Just two months after its release, Apple reduced the number of orders from Inventec, the company manufacturing its HomePods, because of less-than-stellar sales forecasts. And, more recently, Apple officially lowered the price of a HomePod from $350 to $300.
So, why aren’t people buying HomePods?
The big two reasons are price and compatibility. The first is the easier of the two to explain. The HomePod costs $300 – or $350 at launch – and that’s just too expensive for a lot of people, especially when you consider that you could buy any of Google’s or Amazon’s smart speakers, a Sonos One, or even one of the latest offerings from Ultimate Ears for considerably less. The tradeoff is sound quality, but it turns out most people don’t prioritize that. Then there’s the issue of compatibility.
Unlike any of Amazon’s or Google’s smart speakers, or third-party smart speakers that use either Alexa or Google Assistant (like the Sonos One), Apple’s HomePod is designed to deliver the best possible experience for anybody with an iPhone and committed to Apple’s ecosystem. Similar to the way that iMessage has kept people from ever switching from iPhone to Android, Apple hoped that the HomePod and its iPhone-special features – the ability to send iMessages, make calls, quickly hand off audio to and from your HomePod, listen to voicemails and create notes (in the Notes app), all with “Hey Siri” voice commands – could cajole iPhone users. But it hasn’t exactly worked.
It turns out that most people don’t really want (or trust) a smart speaker to have an all-access to their phone ( yes, there are settings you can change for the sake of privacy). Nor do most people need a smart speaker to send iMessages or read out voicemails – it’s easier, more accurate and more familiar just to do it by whipping out their iPhone. Then there’s the issue of multi-user support. Amazon’s and Google’s smart speakers have been able to support multiple users for a long time, but the HomePod, almost two years after its release, still can’t do it. Apple has told users that it was roll out a firmware update for multi-user mode to the HomePod “this fall,” allowing it to recognize up to six different voices in the home, but it’s not here yet. If the HomePod is truly designed for the home, with multiple family members interacting with it, multi-user support is a must.
The biggest compatibility frustration with the HomePod is that it’s too dependent on Apple Music. The HomePod and Siri are able to do some pretty special things in regards to music that no other smart speaker can do, such as tell you the exact artist that’s playing, what song the album is on (as well as the release date), and you can even search songs by their lyrics (in case you forget the name of the song); but it’s only able to do these things if you’re a subscriber to Apple Music.
If you subscribe to any other music streaming service, such as Spotify, you can’t summon any music with your voice, which kind of defeats the whole purpose of having a smart speaker. Apple probably hoped that the HomePod would lure more people over to Apple Music, if they weren’t subscribers already; but it turns out that Apple Music, even though it’s a great streaming service, doesn’t have the same sticking power as iMessage. Not everybody with an iPhone is an Apple Music subscriber, after all.
HomePod 2, here’s what we want:
I’ve talked a lot about the reasons why the HomePod hasn’t been a giant success, but it should be noted that a lot of people love it. They love the fact that it can be the smart home hub for all their HomeKit devices, easily play great music (provided they use Apple Music, which now has more paid subscribers in the United States than Spotify), and plays well with iPhone. Still, there’s a lot of ways that Apple could open up the HomePod to even more people.
The obvious thing to do would be to open up the HomePod – specifically Siri – to other streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, Tidal and Amazon Music. The HomePod should allow you to select your preferred streaming service, the same way Amazon’s, Google’s and Sonos’s, speakers allow you, and thus more people would be able to ask Siri to play music. This doesn’t seem to be that crazy of an idea because, even though Apple has been notoriously protective of its “walled garden” (aka its ecosystem of hardware and software), it has been more open to third-parties in recent times. For example, just recently it gave a host of TV manufacturers (Vizio, Samsung, TCL and more) the go-codes to Apple TV, Apple TV apps and HomeKit.
Dropping the price of its HomePod (even more) would obviously help, too, but it’s probably more likely that Apple releases an all-new cheaper speaker – which it’s rumored to be doing. That said, the upcoming “HomePod mini” needs to be more than just a smaller cheaper version of its current smart speaker. In addition to opening itself (and Siri) up to more streaming services, it’d be great if there were more ways to stream music to the HomePod. For instance, if the new HomePod were to have a line-in, allowing you to hardwire the HomePod to an existing hi-fi system and then control it via Siri, that’d be super attractive. An optical connection could mean that the HomePod could function as a soundbar, too. And if the HomePod had support for Bluetooth, it’d make the speaker way more attractive for way more users, especially those who don’t have iPhones.
The fact is, right now, the smart speaker category seems to be a two-man race between Amazon and Google – as of this past August, Apple controlled just five percent of the total market share for smart speakers in the United States. But that doesn’t mean Apple is out completely. It just needs to make the HomePod and Siri more attractive to more people. And it could start with a new HomePod that’s
A second-generation HomePod could be announced as soon as this October (this month), but maybe a more realistic expectation is in March when Apple holds its annual spring hardware event.