Today, Amazon threw a lot of darts at the smart speaker board with new product offerings that are seeking to explore what smart speakers can even do. A report also emerged today from 9to5Google that Google is seeking to build a high-end “max” version of its Home speaker, news that comes just a week before the company is likely to show off a cheaper “mini” version of the speaker, as well.
What does this rapidly crowding market mean for Apple? The company is still set to release its $349 HomePod speaker in a couple of months. On the pricing front, Apple is in a position it hasn’t been in for a bit, selling a device that’s orders of magnitudes more pricey than competitors with less techie software features available at launch.
Apple will lose out on some customers initially due to pricing. The Echo Dot has shit audio, but at $50, it’s firmly in impulse buy territory. Apple is admittedly selling a different product here, but it’s also not. A lot of people will be buying this audio gizmo who already have good speaker setups and are simply doing so because of the “smart” part of the smart speaker. At $349, the HomePod is going to out-price all of its competitors by comical margins. Thanks to some bulk deals, you could buy four Amazon Echos for the same price as one HomePod.
It’s also worth reiterating that Apple’s aim to differentiate their HomePod as a high-end listening device rather than a direct Echo/Home competitor is a distinction that doesn’t really mean anything. The HomePod will be a smart speaker, their marketing is just making up for the fact that voice assistants are hard and Siri doesn’t work like a dream quite yet.
The sound quality is likely going to run laps around whatever Google and Amazon have now, but Apple didn’t build the HomePod because it realized now was the time to make a good audio product, they did so because they likely can’t afford to wait getting Siri stationed in people’s living rooms. Apple will likely be adding HomeKit-centric features to the HomePod firmware sooner rather than later, but at this point, the launch seems to be largely focused on its Apple Music integration.
The new Amazon Echos, on the other hand, can do it all, including a lot of weird stuff. I have no doubts Amazon is shocked by the Echo’s success and it seems like it just wants to keep experimenting while it has the attention as it hones in on a form factor that will be conducive to people buying stuff. The company now sells the Echo, Look, Show, Dot, Tap, Spot and Plus smart speakers. Stuff like the Echo Look is a bit of a reach, but the Echo Show appears to have some fresh ideas as a smart hub.
Amazon’s voice assistant dominance seems to be living on borrowed time, however.
The Echo may be the best that’s out right now, but the utility of home assistants requires closer integration with people’s smartphones than Amazon is capable of offering. It might take a little bit for Google and Apple to figure out the perfect harmony here, but at least they have the option for deep integration. Much of Amazon’s future success likely relies on its ability to make consumers feel comfortable with an always-on camera, which will likely be a requirement for Amazon actually using the Echo line to sell anything in the future.
Amazon has an early lead here, and while Google is attempting to differentiate its offering, Apple has a big opportunity to make a splash. The HomePod is definitely going to be the most pricey option when it drops, but with the new functionality being launched by Amazon and Google, will the device be able to compete on the software side?
We still don’t even have an exact launch date, so there are obviously still a few questions left for Apple to answer on their smart speaker ambitions.