Apparently Apple knows Siri kinda sucks, because it was the last thing mentioned in the unveiling of the new HomePod speaker. That’s why it’s dumpily named as a successor to the iPod, not Apple’s old-but-unwise voice assistant.
The $349 HomePod Wi-Fi speaker has seven beam-forming tweeters, a custom subwoofer, multi-channel echo cancelling and acoustic modeling in an Apple-y little futuristic shell, trumpeted VP Phil Schiller. Only after gabbing on and on about its sound quality and elegance did he throw up a final slide of the limited range of non-music voice assistance HomePod can provide.
Going head-to-head with Google Home’s speech recognition or Amazon Echo’s voice command developer ecosystem could have been disastrous. It’s frustrating yet permissible when Siri stumbles on your phone where you can easily default to your thumbs. But on a screenless speaker like HomePod, if Siri sucks, the whole gadget does too.
So rather than let you try and fail to ask HomePod anything, Apple focused on making it somewhat competent at a few categories of questions. At least it can transcribe and send messages, do basic translation, read you news and control your IoT devices. And it’s got music covered, letting you request similar songs, get production details and discover music by genre or date.
Apple says it will unlock more HomePod Siri functionality eventually, making use of the six internal microphones. And to court the privacy buffs, it only listens and sends anonymized, encrypted data back to Apple after you’ve said “Hey Siri” rather than constantly eavesdropping.
But really, this is Apple’s admission that it needed to kick the voice command can down the road a bit and strengthen Siri — but it goes gunning for Google and Amazon. In the short-term, it can focus on defeating long-time partner Sonos for multi-room audio, which iOS will soon support natively through HomeKit and AirPlay 2.
HomePod might be a bit underwhelming, and the unseemly name is equal parts camping gear, alien hive and dishwashing detergent. But Apple is the master of the slow invasion. The iPod also started as just music, allowing Apple into your pocket, until the tech improved so it could display video before blossoming into the iPhone. That device was just a multi-touch feature phone with a few Apple utilities until it became everything with the App Store launch.
With sleek branding, favored integrations with Apple’s other products and the company’s retail footprint, HomePod could mature into a true contender if Siri can get smarter.
But for now, Apple is stuck hawking sound quality where many mainstream consumers can’t tell the difference. And Apple’s prestigious position as the luxury lifestyle device maker doesn’t give it as much advantage in selling gadgets that sit on a shelf. You don’t necessarily need the smallest or prettiest smart speaker because fewer people see and judge your status by it like they do with your phone.
Apple will have to compete with other tech giants over software smarts you can’t see, where it’s lagged recently. Like a brutish house guest that’s always breaking or messing up your stuff, Siri might be too stupid to let inside just yet.