Opinion

WWDC: HomePods are Coming

From a low-key WWDC, the HomePod has emerged as the clear object of interest for the media. Much has been discussed regarding how it might compete in the wireless speaker market, and a few more strategic types have been musing on what it represents in terms of Apple’s approach to the connected home.

The first point is only of interest in the sense that Apple’s sound quality needs to be good enough to compete in the space – certainly, at least, at the proposed price tag. But that’s all. It probably can’t hope to be the best, if simply because the audio market is a never-ending treadmill where there is always a better option. But Apple know how to design hardware, so let’s assume that its primary sale point is up to scratch, and will make the shortlist of those in the market.

The second point, about the connected home, is a bit more involved. The fact is that the connected home remains a really slow-moving market, restricted by both a lack of unifying standards and slow upgrade cycles on white goods, let alone consumer appetite or ability to apply it. I mean, let’s assume that the type of person interested in a connected fridge is most likely to be under 35. Even if they had the £1,500-4,000 required to buy the thing, they’re probably going to be renting and in no position to make that decision. It’s not that Apple is wrong. Over time prices will fall and purchase cycles refresh, so the connected home will be here eventually – it’s just that won’t be anytime soon.

Which leaves us with the interesting bit, which is that Apple are also trying to sell canned Siri – it’s first AI play in years and, frankly, not easy. 

Now, Amazon has shown that it’s not necessary to be omniscient to succeed in the personal assistant market, but that’s because it a) has a laser focus on fulfilment, and b) has the ability to connect that focus to its enormous infrastructure and supply chain, including things like Amazon Prime. But Siri, and indeed Apple, have almost none of this. It’s possible that Apple will try and force the question by, for instance, making Apple Music only work with HomePod – but that may prove a bridge too far for its users, who already face a swathe of proprietary restrictions.

This leaves the company facing down the question of how to make its AI actually useful. My expectation is they will copy Amazon in the short term and focus on making sure Siri’s list of ‘doable’ tasks is sufficiently long – because it’s easier than building a knowledge engine, and because it clearly works. But eventually Apple will have to reckon with what they’ve created, and make Siri an altogether more powerful creature. Otherwise, well – it’s only a speaker.

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