I have a confession to make: Even though I’m typing this on a MacBook Pro while wearing an Apple Watch and listening to Apple Music through a pair of Beats X headphones, I haven’t preordered the HomePod. I had one in my shopping cart the first day it was available for purchase. I really did. But I just couldn’t pull the trigger and pay $350 for Apple’s new smart speaker.
The HomePod just doesn’t do enough to justify its price, especially for someone who already has a couple Google Home devices sitting around his apartment. But even if I didn’t have any smart speakers yet, I don’t think I’d spring for Apple’s latest offering.
It’s missing features that Apple promised, chief among them support for multiple users. Like many people, I share my apartment with a roommate. And while I enjoy his company quite a bit, I don’t want to give him access to a digital assistant with all of my calendar information that can send text messages in my stead.
I also have little use for a high-fidelity smart speaker in a relatively small apartment where I don’t feel like treating my neighbors to all of my musical taste. The Google Home Max, which is arguably the HomePod’s closest competitor, was overkill for the space that I have.
Roll all of that together, along with Siri’s lack of killer features compared to its competition, and I think it’s fairly easy to see why the HomePod is a tough sell, even for a hard-core Apple product user.
But before everyone fires up their hot takes about how APPLE IS DOOMED, it’s worth noting that we’re still very much in the early days of the virtual assistant wars. As it stands, none of the companies with a virtual assistant currently on the market lives up to its ideal self. What’s more, Apple has strong lock-in to keep hard-core users from jumping ship away from Siri.
After all, it’s not like I’m about to bail on my Apple Watch and iPhone just to be closer to the Google Assistant, nor is Apple going to allow it to act like a first-class citizen on the company’s mobile platforms. If it takes Apple a year to make the HomePod something worth purchasing, it’ll still be worth my money.
This is a market where Apple still has a chance to thrive — after all, it was late to the media player market with the iPod, the smartphone market with the iPhone, the tablet market with the iPad, and the smartwatch market with the Apple Watch. And yet the company has gone on to hold dominant positions in all four, despite charging higher prices for its flagship products.
(There are, of course, counterexamples, like Apple’s relatively weak position in the smart home space relative to hardware that connects with Amazon’s Alexa smart speaker.)
Apple can also improve the HomePod through software updates, without new hardware revisions, and the company has said the speaker will receive some of its missing features through updated firmware later this year. It’s unclear how much longer that’s going to take, though. Knowing Apple, such updates could come within a few months, or customers could be stuck waiting until fall with the next release of the company’s operating systems.
And there’s a lot of improvement to be done in the market, whether for Siri or its competition. In my view, virtual assistants should be automatic companions that are able to provide you with all of the information that you need and take care of daily inconveniences, while being available in high quality form throughout the day on whatever computing platform you choose. None of them are currently delivering on that promise.
For example, none of the assistants currently on the market can tell me when the next Muni train will arrive at the station. San Francisco’s transit authority has an API for accessing information about trains’ positions and expected arrival times, and yet it’s clear that integrating that information isn’t a priority for any of the companies building virtual assistants.
Even though Siri doesn’t have the third-party integrations that Amazon’s Alexa does, it’s hard for me to say that I’m really missing out on the overwhelming majority of half-baked, minimally useful, or misguided skills that clog up the Alexa store.
But while none are perfect, they’re all critically important to the companies that are producing them, which is why improvements to the HomePod are a near-certainty. But until it gets better, I expect plenty of folks — like me — will hold off purchasing one.
Thanks for reading,
Blair Hanley Frank
AI Staff Writer
P.S. Please enjoy this video of Amir Husain’s recent talk at Google, titled “The Sentient Machine: The Coming Age of Artificial Intelligence.”
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