I want to hate the HomePod. Apple’s new $350 speaker symbolizes everything backward and compromising about the iPhone maker’s walled garden: the speaker requires you have an iOS device to use it, and it demands an Apple Music account to make use of Siri-powered voice control playback. It is antithetical to platform-agnostic Sonos and unabashedly so, as if Apple is daring its competitors to try and compete with its hardware prowess and platform lock-in.
And yet, I find myself mulling over purchasing one for myself. I’ve been using a review unit HomePod, on loan from Apple, for the past week and I find it simultaneously frustrating and fantastic in almost equal measure. It sounds great, better than any Bluetooth speaker I’ve tried in recent memory and on par with some equitably priced and far more cumbersome stereo systems. I’ve also found that having the HomePod as a lone audio option, at least for a medium-sized San Francisco apartment, is more than enough for almost every listening situation.
There’s just one issue: I am a devout Spotify user. I’ve paid for the Swedish streaming service’s premium subscription for nearly six years now and I consider myself a happy customer. That means my HomePod use has been restricted to AirPlay, which is a major compromise. I can’t use Siri to play music, and the HomePod gets interrupted every time another audio source, like a video on Twitter or Instagram, overrides my phone’s settings. In a world increasingly littered with auto-play video on social networks and news sites, this is a huge problem. I’ve resorted to using the HomePod with my iPad as a standalone music device, and it’s a silly workaround I feel a $350 speaker shouldn’t necessitate.
That’s the promise and peril of the HomePod, a device that works best with other Apple hardware and software products, as is the case with most of the company’s ventures. Yet as my colleague Vlad Savov wrote last month, the HomePod is “the point of no return for Apple fans,” because it not only requires you own an iOS device, but because it goes one step further by limiting some of its most useful features to an Apple-made piece of software. Buying and relying on the HomePod then becomes an act of acquiescence to the more radical ends of Apple’s walled garden philosophy. You can put Google Maps on the iPhone and replace Safari with Chrome on Mac, but the HomePod simply will not work as advertised without an Apple Music subscription or iTunes playback.
My options then are using a speaker other than the HomePod (like Sonos), settling for AirPlay, or switching to Apple Music. Now, I’ve tried tons of competing music streaming services, from Google Play Music to Tidal to Apple’s own, which came perhaps the closest to convincing me to switch over. But Spotify has always reigned supreme in my mind for its more streamlined user interface and its recommendations engine, particularly the Discover Weekly playlist feature.
But beyond those elements, what keeps me using Spotify is the hassle involved with switching to something else. I cannot bring myself to exhaustively transfer over my playlists and relearn an entirely new piece of software that I use daily for hours on end, in addition to having to spend weeks to months training this new piece of software on my listening habits and tastes. I know there is paid software out there that can do most of the heavy lifting in this respect, but I’ve become accustomed to Spotify and am overall happy with the product.
Apple is building an ever stronger case for its walled garden, one product at a time
Therein lies the central issue with the HomePod. While I’ve already decided that a nice home speaker is not enough to make me switch from Spotify to Apple Music, the fact that I’m even considering it — or that I’d be willing to live with the limited AirPlay functionality — is proof in my mind that Apple is building an ever stronger case for its walled garden, one product at a time.
The Apple Watch is now the industry-leading wearable, and AirPods have set a high bar in the wireless headphone market for convenience and quality. Similarly, the HomePod helps Apple plant a flag in an existing market crowded with long-time players. It tells those outside the walled garden, who may just be peaking in, what they’re missing. Maybe a single product isn’t enough to make you switch from Android to iOS, Windows to Mac, or Spotify to Apple Music, but a litany of appeals over time builds a more convincing case.
Apple has a penchant for using its signature mix of strong product design and aesthetics — alongside the added benefits of platform lock in — to make its options feel attractive and desirable. Even when you know you’re being enticed to spend more money because Apple refuses to play nice with others, it can feel like a tug of war, with the act of giving up sweetened ever so slightly by the knowledge that buying into Apple’s ecosystem means no longer worrying about how to make disparate products and services fit into your life.
I’m not quite there yet. I still love Spotify, and I don’t think the use case of listening to music in my living room warrants tormenting myself over a $350 speaker purchase and my personal software choices. But I am glad these days to own an iPhone and use a Mac, if only to avoid similar problems that play out across other platforms and device types. For now, Apple has me in its grasp, and it seems like the company is just waiting for me to give in.