Understanding HomePod

HomePod was never designed to be an Amazon Echo or Google Home competitor. Like MacBook Air was never designed to be a netbook competitor. They absolutely have some characteristics in common: HomePod is a speaker you primarily control with your voice and MacBook Air was small and light. But HomePod is no more a $50 home assistant than MacBook Air was a $200 laptop.

Amazon — who's Fire Phone wasn't a hit — needed to get a lot of Alexa into a lot of lives to help increase the stickiness of Prime. The priced-to-move Echo was a brilliant way to do that. Google, which needs to be everywhere and do everything to feed its unquenchable data thirst, was equally brilliant to follow fast.

HomePod was thought... different. Just like AirPods were designed to be the easiest and best way to enjoy your Apple audio with you on the go, HomePod was designed to be the easiest and best way to enjoy your Apple audio in your living room or kitchen.

With AirPods, the lack of wires and surface area to mount traditional hardware buttons made near-field Siri voice controls the obvious way to enable a robust interface. With HomePod, the desire to avoid getting up to cross the room or reaching for another device every time you wanted to control it made far-field Siri just as obvious a choice for interface.

There's a large overlap between the two types of product, but the market for people who want a great sounding speaker and are willing to pay for it, and those who want a great voice assistant for as little money as possible is by no means identical.

I tweeted as much almost a week ago:

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Certainly, many in the media and even many consumers will think of them as competitors — and Apple has even done demos pitting them against each other in music tests. But it makes what should be a simple purchasing decision into a needlessly complex one.

  • If you're all in on Apple Music and/all AirPlay, want a great sounding speaker, and think $350 is more than reasonable for something that sounds as good as traditional speakers costing twice as much or more, you'll probably love HomePod.
  • If your all-in on Amazon or Google, and want an inexpensive voice assistant for one or more rooms in your house, then Echo or Home is a steal.

You can absolutely AirPlay any other audio service or source from your iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV to AirPod, so you're not exclusively bound to Apple Music and iCloud Music Library (including tracks you've matched from your own library), but those will be the best, most integrated experiences at launch.

So, if you expect Echo or Home to sound as good as a more expensive speaker with tremendously good computational audio technology, or you expect HomePod to be as cheap or interface with as many services as Amazon or Google, you're not going to be happy. You really have to pick the device that best suits your wants and needs.

Apple's senior Vice President of worldwide marketing, Phil Schiller, in an interview with Sound & Vision put it this way:

We look at every product the same way, through a lens of what's going to make this an incredible user experience. We try to create these products, like we did with AirPods, to solve a specific problem, and the same philosophy has gone into HomePod. You don't need to understand how a speaker works or how to speak with Siri, you can simply place HomePod anywhere in your home and start listening to the music you love, and it will sound great.

That's how to understand HomePod.

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Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

10 Comments
  • "Just like AirPods were designed to be the easiest and best way to enjoy your Apple audio with you on the go" Easiest? Undoubtedly. Best? Do me a favour. Without Siri the controls are severely limited, the fit is poor for everyone I know who owns them (me included), and the sound quality is by far the worst I've experienced in a pair of headphones that I've paid money for (I've got £20 ones that outperform these).
  • Agree completely with your take on AirPods. It’s like the Emperor has no clothes sometimes on this site.
  • My experience and that of people I personally know is polar opposite of yours. Your emperor has no clothes' bit is indicative of a non-owner.
  • Exactly! If those EarPods are as bad as the above trolls say they are then why have they been so popular and sold so well? Of course the answer from those trolls is that only stupid people buy Apple products.
  • Disagree completely with your assessment of the AirPods. I *do* agree that there are much better headphones as far as fidelity is concerned. But £20 earphones that outperform AirPods? Not likely unless you a) have a preference for spectral resigns the skews towards bass or 2) the AirPods don't fit. Audio preferences are very subjective. I don't know how representative your data points are, but I too know many people who own AirPods as do I. We all enjoy great fitment and they do have a relatively balanced frequency response. Because they don't seal the ear canal opening heavy bass fans will be disappointed.
  • I understand Rene's take on this device, the problem isn't with HomePod, it's with Apple's tone deaf view of the market. Sometimes Apple hits market disruption right, iPod, iPhone, even iPad. However, now people in the market at this price point, don't just want a good streaming speaker. There are tons of them in the market already at or below this price, see Bose Soundlink, Sonos, etc. People are expecting ground breaking technology, not something that just sounds better, those people already have plenty of options. Apple got away with ramping up capability in Apple Watch because there were no other decent option in the market place. That is not the case with Home Pod. Without the special sauce that makes an Apple product more useful and more functional than the competitors, this will be the iPod HiFi all over again. People don't understand this product because the market has shifted away from "just another speaker". People invest their time and information into their iPhones and iPad and they want a speaker system that compliments that. Apple may have started this as a speaker, but the market expects an assistant that sounds great. Releasing a product that is already crippled by the lack of AirPlay 2.0 for actual functionality and lackluster Siri implementation is likely to struggle. With only Apple Music and no integrated Spotify or Pandora, HomePod is not going to win them any converts in the streaming segment. I wanted a product that "just worked" within the ecosystem. What is being sold now is a product that may work, should Apple evolve into something that either disrupts the current market, or starts to meet expectations.
  • You've already heard the HomePod? I haven't some my final judgement is understandably reserved. Apple has a lot of chutzpah releasing the HomePod without everything they promised at launch. I have no doubt they, and future features, will be forthcoming. At this price point, anybody who wants the missing features ahold wait. Maybe they'll be happy with an Amazon or Google product instead. But I expect that the prospect of a presently good sounding streaming speaker that can map its output to a given room (are there 'tons' of those?) so that you can move around and not have dead spots, will have an attraction to a great many people. What I don't understand is how people continue to expect the HomePod to compare to products in wasn't designed to compete with in applications it wasn't designed to address. 0 critical thinking there.
  • Launching without everything? Like the iPhone -- no 3G until next year, no App Store, no cut and paste -- and almost everything they've brought out. Those who buy Model 1 have to be first adopters. But a few days ago, I downloaded the first public beta of iOS 3. In it was support for HomePod-- just like the one before, and the first versions of Airplay 2, for multiple rooms, and/or for pairing two speakers to make stereo. Or, if what they say is true, 3D holographic stereo images. Won't take that long to work through that code. Summer at the latest. Updates downloaded to the HomePod.
  • It's a mono listening experience. Why would anyone want to downgrade their existing STEREO music system for a MONO one? At AU$500 a speaker it will cost you AU$1000 to replicate your existing stereo sound system. However, until Apple releases an update, that will just give you two mono speakers and not a stereo experience. It's puzzling to me that this mono aspect of the HomePod is downplayed by many reviews. The Sound & Vision article, for example, never once mentions the word "stereo" or addresses the issue. as if it is an insignificant detail. I don't know any music lover who would prefer to hear their favourite music in mono instead of stereo. Who wants to 'dumb down' their current stereo system for a mono one?
  • "It's a mono listening experience. Why would anyone want to downgrade their existing STEREO music system for a MONO one? Who wants to 'dumb down' their current stereo system for a mono one?" I don't know that anyone would, and I seriously doubt that Apple expects that will happen. Personally speaking, I'd rather listen to one really good mono source than an inferior multichannel experience. Obviously that's not true for everybody and it's their call. Whatever makes you/them happy. But there are *other* applications than replacing a (presumably?) good stereo experience with a HomePod. (And I don't expect the latter to happen. Who wouldn't want a high quality speaker that maps its output to whatever room it's in? A lot of people for whom good enough is good enough. Further, many people who have very nice multichannel kit in one room, don't have it an another. Apple has, and it usually does, made a product that isn't meant to have universal appeal. There are people who have no use case for the HomePod. You don't by a Fiat 500E to move your 50' G&S rig cross-country. And maybe you don't fire up your Bentley to run down to the local supermarket for groceries. Or drive a thumb tack with a 5lb. maul. Faulting the HomePod for being something that it wasn't meant to be is disingenuous. That it should have been released with AirPlay 2 and stereo capability is the problem. I'll demo the HomePod for 13 days and if it's not satisfactory, back it goes. If I like the sound and the (as yet) limited Siri access I'll keep it.