How Apple Is Aiming Higher Than Amazon’s Echo With Homepod

“Hey, Siri.”

That’s how consumers who purchase Apple’s “smart speaker” Homepod will wake up the device that was long-anticipated as the Cupertino company’s answer to Amazon’s Echo and Google Home in the voice-activated device market.

But as executives Craig Federighi, Apple’s SVP for software engineering, and Phil Schiller, Apple’s marketing head, introduced Homepod, it was clear that, as usual, Apple was looking beyond utility to something more all-encompassing.

Apple Homepod in action

With Homepod, which is powered by Apple’s pioneering connected intelligence voice-assistant Siri, the company is emphasizing the new device as an entertainment hub first — and a Connected Home tool second. Keeping that in mind, it made more sense that Federighi and Schiller took aim not at Echo and Alexa, or Google Assistant, but at wireless home audio system Sonos during the company’s WWDC forum on Monday.

After tracing the rise of iTunes and the first iPod a decade ago to the debut of Airbods, the iPhone’s Bluetooth-powered wireless earbuds, last year, CEO Tim Cook told the 6,000 WWDC attendees, “Just like we did with portable music, we want to reinvent home music.”

Homepod’s positioning starts with entertainment, but it doesn’t end there.

“This is so exciting: the chance to reinvent the way we listen to music in the home,” Schiller said breathlessly as he took the stage. “Why hasn’t this happened yet? There certainly are a lot of companies working hard to help us enjoy music in our home. But none of them have quite nailed it yet.”

“Some [an image of a Sonos speaker appears on the screen] have worked hard to make wireless music sound good around our homes,” Schiller continued These aren’t smart speakers. Others [an image of an Amazon Echo materializes behind him] have worked to make smart speakers that you can talk to — but they don’t sound so great when you listen to music. We want to combine all this to deliver a breakthrough experience.”

Among the things Schiller listed that Homepod has to do a to qualify as “great” includes the ability to “rock the house” by being able to play distortion-free sounds a very low or loud volumes. It also has to be  “spatially aware” so that it recognizes the dimensions of the room its in — plus, it needs to be able to react to being paired with another Homepod.

Lastly, it has to be fun to use. While Schiller initially defined “fun” as relying on a “built-in musicologist” that can recommend what to listen to, that would appear to be the Trojan Horse to promote Homepod and Siri as a way to lead users to other forms of discovery, including where to go for dinner, where to plan a trip, where to order groceries.

As Apple has tried to make Siri smarter to compete with Amazon and Google’s voice assistants, it has also assiduously tried to improve its location and mapping intelligence. And that capability underpins Homepod and Siri’s development as a complete digital home services unit.

With adoption of digital voice-activated assistants more than doubling in Q1 as 76 percent of consumers having used spoken commands, and analysts predicting dominance of the marketplace going to current leader Amazon, because of its head-start, or to Google, by dint of its wide mobile consumer base, the timing could hardly be better for Apple’s entry into the space.

Apple could move 12 million units of its voice-activated device in its first year, KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi recently estimated. And it has a number of advantages.

Aside from appealing to consumers’ desire for simplicity — something lacking in the current feature-heavy iPhone, as the NYT reported this past week — and fun, the price also makes Homepod incredibly enticing: it starts at $349.

While that’s certainly higher than the Amazon Echo $180, Echo Dot’s $50, as well as the Echo View’s $230, Google Home’s $129. It’s also higher than Sonos Play:1’s  $199 and Play:3 runs for $299. Still, $349 is still cheaper than an iPhone and the price point is not “aspirational and luxury” in the way a $600 Apple Watch is.

Assuming it can be the best of both worlds, Apple’s reasonably priced Homepod could conceivably boost the connected intelligence device market even more rapidly than the most optimistic analysts’ predictions.

That said, there is reason for doubt, notes UK researcher Ovum.

HomePod plays well to Apple’s premium hardware strategy but few will care, says Ronan de Renesse, Ovum’s Practice Leader for Consumer Technology

“The only way to sell an expensive smart speaker is with advanced audio technology, the ‘smart’ aspect is mostly done in the cloud,”de Renesse tells GeoMarketing. “Amazon Echo and Google Home users, for the most part, don’t care enough about audio quality to pay an extra $150-200 and it is just not in Apple’s interest to make smart speakers at lower price points. Apple will carve out some sales in the smart speaker market with HomePod but will continue stand far behind Amazon and Google by the end of 2017.”

Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president for software engineering, demonstrates the Do Not Disturb While Driving feature.

Connected Intelligence From Home To Car

In addition to its renewed focus on the connected home, Apple continued its mobile and connected car support with the coming iOS 11.

Among the new features in the iOS update for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch: in addition to iOS 10’s Support for checking car fuel, lock status, turning on lights, and activating horn with automaker apps, the forthcoming software update is promising more safety features for drivers.

In iOS 11, Apple promises to prevent distracted driving with a Do Not Disturb While Driving” feature. Using location and sensors, updated iPhone’s and iPods will be able to when a user is driving and will automatically shut all notifications.

While users can create “emergency” setting for some users, allowing them to get through if they type “urgent,” others will get a message that tells the person trying to reach the driver that they’re otherwise engaged.

Apple’s enhancements to Siri and in Apple Maps, plus its ability to draw a direct line to consumers lives in the home and on-the-go, means it will have an defining effect on how marketers, agencies, and tech vendors respond to businesses’ place-based needs and information.

At the moment, hospitality, retail, and even QSR brands are examining the role that voice-activated assistants could play in complementing service and sales staffs at their respective hotels and stores.

Apple in the Connected Car.

And here too, the ability to offer the “smartest” voice, location, and connected intelligence will determine how successful Apple is in the ways the digital landscape is currently evolving.

The key categories that are also likely to be influenced by the use of voice-activation across entertainment, automotive, and consumer electronics will have to present clear improvements and differentiation within their product offerings, noted Dina Abdelrazik, Research Analyst, at Parks Associates.

“In the auto industry, voice assistants are not only a consumer-play in allowing for more human engagement and interaction with the driver but it’s also a safety play,” Abdelrazik says. “Voice commands help consumers keep their hands on the wheel instead of reaching for their smartphone or in-vehicle infotainment system.”