The HomePod’s proposed December launch was always optimistic: After its WWDC unveiling, we were left with the impression that Apple was ambitious in its launch target, even if it was late to the digital-assistant game. Now it’s fallen even further behind, to sometime in early 2018.
Marketing for Apple’s in-home speaker has leaned heavily on music. The hardware supports that messaging: compared to dedicated home speakers from Sonos or Bose, HomePod offers a respectable alternative, especially given its size. (If you stack it next to an Echo or Google Home, it simply outshines both in terms of audio hardware.)
But it’s not without issues.
Siri, Can You Hear Me?
Siri is the real lynchpin for HomePod. Apple can talk up its sound-distribution prowess all it likes, but there’s no getting around Siri’s shortcomings.
Via flashy marketing, Apple tries to rebrand Siri as a ‘musicologist,’ which is a fancy way of saying it will be able to play music when asked. And that’s a smart move; playing music is one of the things people use their smart speakers for most often.
Beyond Siri’s newly learned music skills, it falls short when it comes to HomePod. Recently, Apple launched several HomePod Siri skills for developers, and the list was both short and confusing. It’s especially befuddling because Siri already uses iPhones and iPads for completing many tasks; why can’t a HomePod/Siri tandem hand off any functionality to an iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch or Apple TV? It’s uniquely confusing.
Siri’s dearth of use-cases was also telling at WWDC. Behind closed doors, Apple was demoing HomePod to press – but never once showed Siri off. It was all about what sound the tiny powerhouse could produce. Most in attendance assumed what they were witnessing was a pre-production demo unit that hadn’t been fully baked, and didn’t question things too much.
HomePod, But No HomeKit?
I’m not saying HomePod is incapable of running HomeKit instances, but it’s a footnote at best. If you hit the HomePod site, you have to scroll past several pages of hardware and music chatter before Apple writes this:
HomePod isn’t just great at playing your music. It’s also a helpful home assistant for everyday household questions and tasks. And it’s a hub for controlling your smart home accessories — from a single light bulb to the whole house — with the power of your voice.
That’s followed up with a small blurb about HomeKit “scenes,” and the Home app. (By contrast, Amazon chooses to make its mark by offering up home automation front and center.) Apple’s entire home device stack is secure, growing exponentially, and intrinsically offered up on half the phones in the U.S., and yet it treats HomeKit for HomePod like an also-ran.
This is a mistake by Apple, for several reasons. First, it dissuades developers who want to consider HomePod as a development platform. HomePod is also where HomeKit makes sense for a wider audience, i.e., those who aren’t audiophiles. You know, most of us.
Developers Want HomePod
As previously discussed, Apple is limiting Siri functionality on HomePod to Lists, Notes and Messaging. It’s especially odd because the rest of Siri’s functionality – even music – is handed off to an accompanying iPhone or iPad.
We’re baffled by this move. Even a “continue this on my iPhone” voice command would be better than omitting features altogether. It’s reasonable that apps or features that require payment, such as Lyft or the upcoming Apple Pay p2p payments feature, would need to authenticate the transaction via Touch ID or Face ID.
But the lack of access for third-party developers almost assuredly spelled doom for HomePod’s December launch. If HomePod wants to make an impact as a true home companion, it must provide more than great sound. Competition-wise, that’s especially critical when you’ve got Google Home leaning into its robust search engine, and the Amazon Echo’s foundation of over 20,000 Alexa skills.
Developers can’t necessarily target HomePod, but they can choose to weave SiriKit into their apps and services. Without full functionality, many developers will continue to overlook SiriKit.
All Is Not Lost
Missing out on the holiday gift-giving rush is not great for Apple, but launching next year won’t kill its home hub offering. Nor is this a new trend for the company; Apple delayed the AirPods just last year and that product is doing just fine, sales-wise.
We’d like to assume the HomePod delay also means more functionality is on the way. Most believe this delay has everything to do with Siri, which is hit-and-miss anyway. Apple is making strides with Siri and machine learning, so perhaps it feels there’s a hurdle to get over before it’s ready for a voice-first world.
All told, Apple is missing large chunks of three key components that would make any home hub a success – and despite the marketing flubber, people will evaluate HomePod according to those components. After a few hours of toying with music playback, people will start asking Siri things; they’ll prompt her to perform actions, or return answers. They will be reminded how limited Siri is, and that they could have done much better on the home hub front – and for less money. Hopefully, by the time HomePod launches in “early 2018,” Siri will have made it worth the money.