Running behind Amazon, Google and the Android creator Andy Rubin’s Essential Home, Apple has finally confirmed its own standalone digital assistant product, or ‘Siri speaker’, the HomePod.
The announcement, made at the company’s 2017 Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) today in San Jose, was one of the year’s worst-kept tech secrets and was widely predicted. The device will retail at $349, come in white and space grey and will be available in the UK in December. The UK price will be announced later this year, although Apple did not say when.
By comparison, the Google Home comes in at £129 and Amazon’s prime Alexa-powered device, Echo, is £150, with the Echo Dot available for just £50. Of Amazon’s other Alexa-enabled devices, perhaps most anticipated is the Echo Show, its “hands-free camera and style assistant”, with its 7-inch colour screen at $230 in the US (no UK release date is announced yet).
Apple hopes its HomePod will rival the Amazon Echo, Google Homeand the coming Essential Home. To make up ground on competitors, the HomePod will have a seven tweeter beamform array plus a subwoofer inside, besting the current audio tech on these rival devices.
Despite delivering what could never be described as unerring responses, Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home have still created a new market for voice recognition AI assistants designed specifically for the home.
In an attempt to make it look like it is not following behind the pack and is, in fact, going its own way, Apple is trying to market the HomePod as a smart music system that just happens to also be able to answer spoken questions and commands thanks to the six on-board mics. It can additionally handle HomeKit duties by voice prompts or even remotely via the app.
Inside, the brains of the HomePod happen to be the same A8 chip that powers the iPhone, making the speaker one of the most powerful of its kind when it comes to market.
Looking at the design of the HomePod, it has a 3D mesh outer shell and light display on the top to indicate when Siri is listening. Apple’s marketing boss Phil Schiller previously hinted that the smart speaker would have a screen, commenting: “So there are many moments where a voice assistant is really beneficial, but that doesn’t mean you’d never want a screen. So the idea of not having a screen, I don’t think suits many situations”. It is something of a surprise, then, that the HomePod does not have an on-board display. The shipping date later this year means the HomePod comes out a full two years after Amazon launched Echo.
Going along with the typical Apple aesthetic, the HomePod is clearly meant to look high-end and expensive, with “excellent” sound quality thanks to those seven tweeters and subwoofer. Two HomePods can be linked to provide stereo pairing, which sets it somewhat against Sonos, while each 7-inch-tall speaker attempts, through some clever DSP, to split individual elements of a song to offer “spatial sound”.
The speaker will also work with your existing Apple Music subscription and have access to your music library and playlists.
Apple’s AI assistant Siri was launched in 2011, and was not an instant hit – nor were original AI assistants on other platforms. However, consumers have found that talking to an assistant while on the move in the street is very different to interacting with a smart speaker in the home, which is how Amazon had such success with the Echo, shifting a reported 11 million devices by the end of 2016.
Bolstering its support of this in-house AI assistant, as well as revealing the HomePod, Apple has launched a Siri-based watch face as part of watchOS4, describing it as “an intelligent proactive assistant right on your wrist” that “displays the information users need most throughout the day using Siri intelligence” such as traffic delay information to usual commutes.
Alexa’s popularity, despite its unreliability experienced by WIRED, is rooted in the fact that, thanks to opening up the system to third-party developers, it has more than 12,000 “Skills” that help users implement voice-activated smart home tech in their homes.
Apple clearly hopes to win the AI-assistant race on the design front and by pitching this as a speaker, capitalising on the fact that it already has millions of devices in homes across the world, as well as its own home automation platform, HomeKit. It’s the company’s strong association with music that allows it to, initially at least, positioned the HomePod mainly as an AI-powered music speaker.
Tim Cook said on introducing the device that Apple wants “to reinvent home music”. They may well do this, but they also want a large slice of the home digital assistant market, despite coming to the party late.