Today, Apple finally announced a shipping date for its smart speaker, the HomePod. And something about the launch of this Apple music device reminds me of the launch of that other Apple music device, the iPod.
“No wireless. Less space than a Nomad. Lame,” said Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda on Slashdot on October 1st, 2001. (The Nomad, if you’re wondering, was a pre-iPod MP3 player that was the size and shape of a Sony Discman in its early incarnations. So.) At the time, Slashdot was the most important online community for talking about tech. And at the time, tech news meant for discussion (a lot of Linux) was posted with brief news snippets submitted by readers, snarky one-liners from the people who posted, and even snarkier tags. The iPod came “from the well-thats-not-very-exciting dept.”
CmdrTaco’s comment has become the canonical “tech people don’t get Apple” quote. It didn’t give nearly enough credit to the things that Apple was quickly becoming great at doing in 2001: design, both in hardware and in software. It focused on tech specs instead of usability. It dismissed Apple as a toy company. Basically, every time you see an Apple fanatic with a chip on their shoulder defending the company, it goes back to the kind of reaction that quote evokes.
Doubting Apple products at launch has always been a dangerous game
It’s still a powerful feeling today, even though Apple is (by any reasonable metric) the most powerful and influential company in consumer tech. It’s powerful because that reaction has been justified a few times over the years. The original iPhone launched with slow 2G wireless and no apps. The Apple Watch was slow, overpriced, and confusing at launch. The iPhone went on to become the greatest consumer product of all time. The Apple Watch overcame its overhyped launch and has quietly become a hit.
There are parallels between the HomePod and the iPod. Both are devices launching into an already crowded market, where companies are battling it out for market share and mindshare. Both are limited at launch to working well within Apple’s own ecosystem. Both are more expensive than much of their competition. Both purport to be more elegant and user-friendly than everything else out there. Both are laser-focused on music. Both have the word “Pod” in their product name.
Both are launching with serious questions about their functionality and ability to succeed in the marketplace.
Since my only real experience with the HomePod was a 10-minute controlled demo on launch day, I’m basically in the same place Malda was those 17-odd years ago. The thing has been announced, we know what’s been claimed, and not much else. We especially don’t know what it’s like to actually use the HomePod, and using the iPod is what convinced you it was different.
There are still many unanswered questions about the HomePod
So, I’m not eager put myself out on a limb and say that the HomePod is or is not going to replicate the iPod’s success. But I can’t stop from feeling like the smart speaker market is further along in its evolution now than the MP3 player market was when the iPod was announced. I also can’t stop thinking that consumers are smarter and more demanding about gadgets now than they were then.
Here is a simple list of the things that are troubling about the HomePod vis-à-vis its competition, Alexa and Google Assistant speakers:
- Price. The HomePod is $349. You can buy into either the Alexa or Google ecosystem for 50 bucks (often for way less).
- Diversity of products. There is one HomePod, and it costs 350 bucks. There are dozens of different speakers that support Alexa; Amazon itself offers at least four current models. There are soon to be dozens of Google Assistant speakers; Google itself offers three models. Both of those ecosystems will have speakers with full displays (if that’s what you want).
- Software compatibility. Alexa and Google have a significant lead with their intelligent assistants compared to Siri. That’s a strange circumstance, given that Apple was first to market with Siri and sells millions of devices with Siri on them. But both Amazon and Google have been building out compatible voice-only capabilities with third parties to work with their speakers, while Apple has taken a slower, more deliberate approach. Apple’s description of Siri on the HomePod is a “musicologist” and only mentions its broader capabilities as a side note.
- Software compatibility, part 2. The HomePod only works with Apple Music. Alexa and Google not only work with Spotify, Pandora, and TuneIn (and more!), but they’ll even let you set a competing music service as the default playback option. Also, Apple Music has no free option: to make a HomePod work, you’ll have to pay a monthly subscription fee.
- Features incomplete. The HomePod is launching without key features for a home speaker. AirPlay 2 is apparently necessary for multiroom audio and even stereo pairing of two speakers, and it won’t be on the HomePod at launch. It’s “coming this year in a free software update.” (Also can we take another moment to ask what the heck is up with AirPlay 2? It still feels very mysterious.) Meanwhile, Alexa, Google Assistant, and Sonos are all offering these features.
That’s probably enough. But as I write every single one of those doom-and-gloom bullet points, I hear a tiny voice in the back of my head. It says “No wireless. Less space than a Nomad. Lame.” What if all that naysaying is just more out-of-touch techy nonsense, and “real people” will love it more than Alexa or Google Home?
The bet on the HomePod is the same as the bet on almost every new Apple product: that the spec list doesn’t add up to the whole experience. It’s a bet that there will be some special Apple design magic in the hardware and the software that just makes it feel better to use.
It’s also a bet that even though the pundits (raises hand) say that Apple is too late to the market, it’s really not. That’s what happened with the iPod and the iPhone: people thought those markets were mature, but in reality, they were tiny and ready to become massive. Apple was the catalyst that made it happen.
The same could be true for smart speakers. But as easy as it is to draw parallels to the iPod, the differences seem bigger to me. Apple’s competitors are far, far better at making consumer products than they were 17 years ago. Apple’s consumers are savvier (and, yes, nerdier) than they were 17 years ago. People love Google and Amazon; they’ve both learned a lot of Apple’s tricks and released clever devices that people enjoy using.
This is an unfair comparison because these devices set a very high bar, but still: when the iPod and iPhone launched, the people who got them “got it.” They knew immediately that what they were using was better than what existed before and portended a different kind of future. Will people who get the HomePod feel the same way?
Right now, I doubt it.