Apple's turn, behold the HomePod

 Image courtesy of Apple

Image courtesy of Apple

Amazon seems to have nailed a new product category when they decided to marry an omni-directional speaker with an AI assistant. Google and Apple were busy focusing their AI efforts on mobile devices, and Microsoft attempted to play along with Windows. Amazon came out of the blue with the smart speaker, they're only notable consumer AI play to date. 

While the intention may have been to leverage analytics and convenience to drive sales of Amazon goods, the Echo really provided the tech industry with a more profound discovery; smart speakers are really useful for interfacing with smart homes. Amazon has seen fairly rapid adoption by home automation device manufacturers and enthusiasts alike in developing now 'skills' for Alexa to use. Google saw the writing on the wall and jumped in with the Google Home device shortly after, and Microsoft focused on building a framework for partners to build Cortana into their own products. This left everyone wondering where Apple was, to the extent that it was widely speculated they would be revealing something at this year's WWDC. 

Sure enough, the cat was out of the bag a month before the event, more or less, and today we see the reveal. Rene Ritchie of iMore had some hands on time at the event to get some first impressions, and described the focus of Apple's device as all about the music. The HomePod is said to have superior sound projection and separation not only compared to Amazon and Google's offerings, but even that of Sonos.

Its audio sounds like a layer of muddiness and dullness has been wiped away, leaving music that is suddenly sharp and clear.
— Rene Ritchie

The inclusion of an A8 processor has allowed Apple to put some seriously smart digital processing into the device, akin to the way their image processors can perform near instant image manipulation with the iPhone 7 portrait mode. The audio output is optimized for both the source and the room in order to provide the best, clearest sound reproduction using beam forming tweeters and a sub-woofer with a reported 20mm of diaphragm travel. Unfortunately for some, the quality bar means Apple has not included Bluetooth streaming, only Airplay 2 and direct streaming from Apple Music. Of course, you can Airplay other sources from your iPhone if required.

Top top of the device has a capacitive LED display which shows the typical Siri waveform animation when it's listening, and allows play, pause and volume adjustment by touch.

 Image courtesy of Apple

Image courtesy of Apple

The release is coupled with a revamped 'smarter' Siri coming in iOS 11, which will be included in the HomePod, along with HomeKit integration. I have to believe ramping up their home automation play was a big reason for this device, although the music focus gives the broader customer base a reason to buy in. As with the iPhone, Siri will be activated by the "Hey Siri" command phrase. In order to improve privacy, the HomePod will listen for and process the command phrase locally, and only once active send encrypted and anonymized data to the cloud service. A key point for the HomeKit users is that the HomePod will be able to act as a Home Hub as well.

Apple has often been accused of being late to the party, and those claims are being made again now. However, Apple has repeatedly turned that into a competitive advantage. Smartphones, tablet computers, smart watches, and MP3 players all existed long before Apple made one, but in each case the category was shaken up, if not turned on its head. By waiting for others to fail and taking notes, Apple brings their design chops to the fore and delivers something compelling. It will be interesting to see if this is another such case. 

The HomePod will be priced a US$349, come in black or white, and be available in the US, UK, and Australia this December.