Apple hasn’t given up on its HomePod smart speaker. According to a new Bloomberg report, the company has hired a new software head for the device in a bid to make a speaker that can compete with Google and Amazon’s. But the HomePod needs a lot more than new leadership (though that might help) to be a smart speaker worth buying.
The new software head is Afrooz Family, who was part of the team that worked on the original HomePod. Family worked as an Apple audio engineer from 2012 to 2016 before cofounding Syng, a startup that made an even more expensive alternative to the HomePod. (Think $2,400 expensive.) But the HomePod’s sound has never been the issue.
There are a lot of reasons why Google’s Nest speakers and Amazon Echoes are popular. They’re inexpensive and come with competent digital assistants. You can buy multiple versions, in a variety of sizes and functions. Some even come with displays and others are wall mountable. But the main thing is they work with the widest range of smart home products and third-party services. (Even if at times the interface can be clunky as hell.)
The HomePod can also do some of these things, but not as well. Siri is the digital assistant with the biggest emphasis on privacy, but also the dumbest. It’s comical how bad Siri on the original HomePod was at doing the simplest of tasks. Smart home device-makers were slow to adopt HomeKit, and by the time they did, everyone had already chosen the Google or Amazon ecosystem. There are still only two kinds of HomePods: the discontinued original, and the HomePod Mini. In the year 2021, despite announcing third-party integrations with the Mini, you still have to use the ole AirPlay 2 workaround to play Spotify, which kind of defeats the purpose of a smart speaker with a built-in digital assistant.
All these annoyances aside, what makes a great smart speaker runs counter to Apple’s whole walled garden philosophy. Apple products work best with other Apple products and exclude Android users. The fragmented smart home works best when devices and services play nice with each other. Who plays nice with everyone? Alexa and Google Assistant. Case in point: Both Amazon and Google have their own music services. They’ll also let you pick Spotify as your default service on their own speakers.
At least Apple is playing nice with Matter, a unified smart home protocol that looks to make using products from different companies seamless. But transition periods are always messy. Plus, while it’ll make things easier, it won’t stop Google, Amazon, and Apple from pushing their own ecosystems and platforms as the “main” one you use. Matter has also been delayed until 2022. There have been promising signs that Apple, Google, and Amazon are dedicated to making this work, but there’s always the chance it won’t.
It’s not impossible to make the HomePod into something good. The HomePod Mini was more affordable with a more versatile design, and it paid off. The Mini’s sales were far better than the original Homepod (which still had launch stock when it was discontinued). But while the Mini did well, it wasn’t enough to make Amazon or Google quake in their boots.
It’s not just any one thing that Apple needs to fix. Siri needs to be better. A lot better. People have to be able to buy 4-5 HomePods for their entire home without going bankrupt. There need to be different types to suit different homes, use cases, and lifestyles. Apple needs to figure out smart displays because that’s where the whole market is headed. Android users need to have an easy way to control smart homes using the HomePod as a hub, or mixed households will never latch on. In other words, Apple needs to meet smart home users where they are — not the other way around.