Apple, Combining a TV Box and Smart Speakers Isn’t Going to Fix Your Smart Home Woes

Apple, Combining a TV Box and Smart Speakers Isn’t Going to Fix Your Smart Home Woes
Photo: Catie Keck/Gizmodo

Listen, Apple’s great at a lot of things, but building smart home gadgets ain’t one of them. In fact, its dismal offerings in that space are a glaring weakness — especially when you look at the strides Google and Amazon have made in recent years. Apple is well aware of that, and it looks like it might try to change its smart home fortunes by smooshing together the Apple TV and the HomePod. But that alone won’t address the weak points in Apple’s ecosystem.

The Apple TV–HomePod rumour comes via a Bloomberg report. In it, Apple prognosticator Mark Gurman cites anonymous Apple sources saying the combo gadget would also include a camera for video conferencing and “other smart-home functions.” In terms of features, it appears the gadget would do everything the Apple TV currently does, but with a better built-in speaker for listening to music and interacting with Siri. You can currently listen to music, provided you have Apple Music, on the Apple TV, but the sound quality is limited to your TV’s native speakers. In other words, it’s terrible. (If it were smart, Apple would opt to make its streaming box smart speaker combo a soundbar, but it’s unclear based on the Bloomberg report.)

Bloomberg further contends that Apple is also tinkering with its own smart displays. Basically, it’s reportedly mulling slapping an iPad onto a HomePod or, possibly, a robotic arm that can follow you around like the latest Echo Show. This smart display would also include a camera for video calls.

Both rumoured devices are purportedly in the early stages of development, which can mean a lot of things. They could never see the light of day — Apple works on a bunch of secret gadgets that never make it to market — or the final products could end up being drastically different from whatever they currently are. The important takeaway is more that Apple seems to be addressing its lack of momentum in the smart home.

Right now, there isn’t really a must-have set-top box and speaker combo device. Amazon’s got the closest thing with the Fire TV Cube, but we found it to be pretty craptacular when we reviewed it back in 2018. And on paper, succeeding in this area could give Apple a much-needed leg up in a smart home race where its competitors have a massive head start. While Google and Amazon have been churning out newer, more advanced smart speakers at a steady clip, Apple’s floundered.

Its original HomePod flopped, in large part because it was expensive and Siri still sucks. Apple discontinued it last month. Meanwhile, the Apple TV hasn’t had a refresh since 2017, though, it’s widely speculated that a new one is coming soon. But even if it were, it’s only captured a dismal 2% of the streaming device market. The newer HomePod mini is currently Apple’s flagship smart home device. Its affordable $149 price gave Apple a huge boost in this category when it launched, but overall, it still only has about 4.7% of the global smart speaker market.

The hardware isn’t the problem with Apple’s smart home gadgets — with the exception of the polarising Apple TV remote, these are all solid products. Pumping out new hardware won’t fix what’s fundamentally wrong with all of Apple’s smart home attempts — an inferior virtual assistant and poor third-party integrations.

HomeKit, Apple’s smart home protocol, has been adopted by more products but is still far less common than Google and Amazon’s. (Plus, if you’ve ever had a HomeKit device, god forbid you lose the QR code. If you do and need to move or reconfigure your smart home, it’s over.) Smart homes are hard enough to maintain if you want to mix and match products from different manufacturers — and HomeKit’s stunted reach doesn’t help that. Interoperability is a big must for the smart home, and it was only with the HomePod mini that Apple finally realised, hey, maybe people want third-party streaming services on this thing. Lastly, why use Siri, which only gets things right a third of the time, when Google Assistant and Alexa can do much more?

Apple’s fixation with its walled garden is its biggest crutch when it comes to the smart home. Unless it’s willing to chip away at it and fundamentally change its approach, it doesn’t matter how many gizmos it’s working on.