Apple has announced HomePod availability, and its feature-set is going to leave some of us wanting.
Available for pre-order starting today (and appearing in stores February 9), HomePod’s hardware hasn’t changed since Apple’s initial unveiling in June 2017: It’s still a squat 360-degree speaker with an array of tweeters and microphones surrounding an upward-facing woofer. It’s powered by an A8 SoC (system-on-a-chip), the same chipset found in older iOS devices.
HomePod lacks some promised functionality, though. Stereo sound and multi-room playback via AirPlay 2 is on hold; according to Apple, those will be coming “later this year.” Yet those were two of the more highly touted features during HomePod’s announcement at WWDC (and the only features that have been delayed).
Siri is present, but Apple hasn’t radically expanded the digital assistant’s functionality. With HomePod, Siri’s main purpose is home automation (HomePod is another Apple HomeKit hub, and can work in tandem with (or replace) an Apple TV or iPad as a controller for smart devices). Though Siri-on-HomePod uses the company’s Handoff feature for many functions, it stops short of allowing you to do things like hail a Lyft.
With HomePod, Apple’s goal is to offer the “ultimate speaker.” Comments on the subreddit r/audiophile suggest the company is leveraging advanced digital modeling to optimize the device’s small-ish subwoofer and speaker array; those redditors claim this type of technology is almost exclusively found on speaker systems with six-figure price-tags. The microphones are used to probe the room to learn its dimensions, which allows HomePod to produce adequate sound for the space it’s in.
That kind of advanced functionality will serve as Apple’s selling point, since HomePod can’t compete on pricing with other digital assistants in the space, including the Amazon Echo and Google Home. Indeed, Apple’s ultimate marketing strategy might focus on undercutting “dream systems” for audiophiles rather than trying to win against cheap hardware in the digital-assistant arena. However, HomePod will only support iTunes or Apple Music, not third-party streaming music platforms such as Spotify, which could slow its consumer adoption.
For those interested in the connected home, your mileage with HomePod will hinge on how much you’re invested in the HomeKit ecosystem. Fortunately, a number of third-party smart devices support HomeKit, making HomePod viable as a home-automation center.
But enough about consumers: what about developers and other tech pros who might want to build services for HomePod? There’s some good news for that audience: thanks to SiriKit, developers can adapt iOS and watchOS apps to work with Siri-on-HomePod, so that users can interact with apps via voice control. Although options for interactivity may be limited, at least at first, we expect Apple to loosen its grip on Siri over time. Combine that with Apple’s efforts to improve Siri through machine learning, and it’s clear that HomePod could eventually become a powerful assistant.