The HomePod was presented at WWDC as a Sonos competitor first, Echo competitor second.
Everyone has different accounts of how well Siri works for them, but I think it’s fair to say that it is at least up to par on the fundamental things that people use the current generation of smart assistants for (weathers, timer, music control). I also think Siri beats out Google and Amazon in terms of interacting with smart home accessories using natural language, dependent on the user having HomeKit compatible equipment. No AI assistant is close to good enough yet; AI is a burgeoning field and there is a long roadmap for Siri, Alexa and the innominate Google Assistant to grow. I am hopeful that Apple can be at the leading edge of the space, despite Apple letting Siri languish as a largely unchanged feature for years since its original 2011 debut.
Pre-empting the reviews, the biggest barrier to HomePod competing with the other smart cylinders is simply the prohibitive price. If you just want a faceless assistant in your living room, the HomePod isn’t really a good option because you are paying for features (speaker quality) that you probably don’t care about.
To justify the higher price, the music side of the HomePod story has to be very good, close to excellent even. Based on whispers, I think it’s going to impress normal consumers and audiophiles with industry-leading sound in its form factor class. Whether the appeal of premium audio is too niche is another matter. I also prefer how the HomePod looks as an object compared to Sonos’ latest speakers, the Echo cylinders and Google’s Home Max. The best sound in the prettiest package. That’s a pretty good sales pitch.
However, there’s more to competing with Sonos than having the best standalone compact speaker. A big draw of Sonos is that you can stream music through your whole home with multiple speakers in different rooms all synced up to the same audio stream. The HomePod was intended to have exactly these capabilities; multi-room playback and the ability to use two HomePods as a stereo pair. Both of these features are not shipping at launch. This undermines the product substantially as you can’t reasonably compete in the modern home audio market without multi-room synced music, I’d bet the average Sonos owner has more than one speaker for instance. Apple knows that these are critical elements of the product’s appeal; you don’t have to scroll that far down the HomePod page to see them advertised, albeit with ‘coming later this year’ banners.
These drawbacks dilute the original concept that Apple laid out at WWDC and the 1.0 will not fulfil the vision of a true smart Sonos replacement. I’m sure there’s an interesting behind-the-scenes story on why AirPlay 2 has caused them so many internal setbacks. It’s embarrassing to announce a product, then delay it, then release with a stripped down offering of features from what they originally sold people on.
My guess is that when Apple made the decision to delay HomePod into early 2018, they thought that the multi-room AirPlay 2 stack would be ready to go with just a few more weeks of work. It has since transpired that it is actually going to take months to finish it up, and a product manager made the call to ship the HomePod as is, without these features. Note that if you are only buying one unit, you aren’t actually affected by this. Ideally, multi-room will be ready for the holiday season and Apple can encourage everyone that owns one to take advantage of it.
All that being said, I am glad Apple is making this product and I am optimistic it will be a beloved item for people that stretch their wallets to buy it. Whether it will be a commercial business success, with millions of units sold, is a different matter entirely. HomePod straddles the line between a standalone product and ecosystem accessory.