Unsound Argumentation: The HomePod deemed inferior

By Uluroo — November 25, 2017

Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant are enough to trump Apple’s HomePod’s superior sound quality. No, the personal assistants aren’t available for free. What gave you that idea?

If there’s one thing we can all agree upon, it’s that the best way to write an article is to make up a few facts, add a pinch of speculation, ignore anything that disagrees with you, and then marvel that you got the piece published. Mark Gurman of Bloomberg just presented us with a prime example of this. Except for maybe that last part. Uluroo was the one doing that.

“Why Apple’s HomePod Is Three Years Behind Amazon’s Echo”

Oh, why are we so surprised about this anymore? Click-baiting titles pretty much write themselves these days. Unfortunately Bloomberg’s artificial intelligence has not yet perfected the capabilities of creating “evidence” to support the claims of said click-bait.

Gurman starts off with a brief history of the HomePod: a side project by Mac audio engineers that went through several iterations and shutdowns. That’s all you really need to know, but there’s a lot more in the article. Uluroo just doesn’t feel like explaining all that, except for this last part...

Yet despite having all the ingredients for a serious competitor to the Echo—including Siri and the App Store—Apple never saw the HomePod as anything more than an accessory, like the AirPods earphones.

Whaaaa? An accessory? The HomePod is its own product. It may connect with your iPhone, but that doesn’t make it an accessory any more than it makes the Mac an accessory.

Anyway, all this is supposed to lead to the HomePod’s inferiority.

As a result, when the $350 gadget debuts early next year (on Friday Apple delayed the launch from December), the HomePod won’t be able to do many of the things the Echo can. Amazon offers thousands of “skills” (voice-activated apps) that let users do a range of things (including buy stuff from Amazon). The Google Home Mini, which debuted earlier this year, is similarly endowed. The HomePod will be mostly limited to playing tunes from Apple Music, controlling Apple-optimized smart home appliances and sending messages through an iPhone.

First off, dear reader, you should decide for yourself whether you think the HomePod is even a direct competitor to the Echo. Uluroo thinks it’s a maybe, given the emphasis Apple has placed on the sound quality of the speaker. Also, as Gurman mentioned, it’s seriously tenspensive. It’s aimed at a totally different portion of the market. But if you do think the HomePod is an enemy of the Echo, and if you do think these extra capabilities set Alexa apart, consider this: Both Google Assistant and Alexa — Alexa’s Skills included — are available without purchasing a Google Home or an Echo. The home assistants Gurman is saying are so great are available as a smartphone app. The same goes for Siri. If you remove the personal assistant from both sides of the equation, the hardware is what matters. That’s why Apple is putting so much into sound quality. If they didn’t, the HomePod wouldn’t do anything better than an iPhone. The HomePod makes clear the benefits of having a wiretap in your kitchen. (That was a joke. Uluroo is not paranoid about smart speakers.) in Uluroo’s opinion, the HomePod is more a competitor to speakers from Sonos, which focus more on sound quality.

“This is a huge missed opportunity,” said one of the people, who requested anonymity to discuss an internal matter. Apple declined to comment.

Oh, did they? Maybe it’s because they know that the HomePod might eventually get third-party apps. The original iPhone didn’t have apps, but look where it is now. The HomePod needs time to develop; Uluroo thinks that in a future software update, Apple will add more app-related capabilities. But the apps aren’t as important as sound quality. The differentiating feature between all these smart speakers is not the personal assistant. Those are available for free. The hardware is what stands out, and that’s where Apple is focusing first before it adds software features that really aren’t that important. Gurman is simply assuming that the HomePod will never have the same capabilities as the Echo or the Google Home.

The Echo is a truly standalone product at the center of an ecosystem. The cloud-based operating system has made it easy for developers to create thousands of skills or voice-activated apps. By contrast, the HomePod is essentially an extension of the iPhone, like an accessory. When someone asks the HomePod to open a third-party app, the request won’t go directly to the cloud, as with the Echo, but to an iPhone

Dumb ol’ Apple. What were they thinking? Why should a HomePod sync its data with an iPhone? Shouldn’t the data just be in the cloud, not synced with the rest of your devices?

If Alexa is the beating heart of the Echo, Siri is almost an afterthought.

Uluroo suspects this is because Alexa and Siri are not the important parts of their respective products. Both of them are accessible without the purchase of an Echo or HomePod. You can ignore this fact, but doing so doesn’t change anything. Siri’s musicologist focus on the HomePod is important because the whole point of the HomePod is music. Nothing else Siri can do on the HomePod is that important because it’s not unique to the device.

On Apple’s website, the HomePod is listed as an accessory under the music menu.

No, it’s listed under the music menu. Because it’s a speaker. You see, it plays music. The only mention of the word “accessory” on the HomePod page of Apple’s website is about smart home accessories.

Apple has told suppliers it expects to ship four million HomePods in 2018, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. Taipei-based Fubon Securities analyst Arthur Liao predicted those production numbers earlier this month. By comparison, Amazon has sold an estimated 15 million units since going on sale in 2015, according to analysts at CIRP LLC.

Is this good or bad for Apple according to Gurman? The Echo has been around for almost three years. That totals to a bit over five million units sold per year. If Apple does ship four million HomePods next year, the huge price differential will more than make up for the lower sales. Apple has never been about shipping more of a product. It’s about making more money. Uluroo thinks it’s set to do so with the HomePod.

Apple could still eventually add features to the HomePod. These might include its own app ecosystem and support for competing music services.

Whoops! Ha ha! We forgot to mention that until the last paragraph. Hope you’ll understand. Thanks a bunch!

Even so, until that happens, Apple will still be playing catchup in a category invented by a company better known for e-commerce than hardware.

Apple is not playing catch-up. It may be late to the game, but that doesn’t mean the HomePod won’t sound better and make more money than the Echo. There’s room for improvement when it comes to software capabilities, sure, but what Apple understands is that the hardware matters in smart speakers.

The next time Gurman runs a piece claiming that one thing is better than another thing, it may help if he double-checks that the key features of the “better” thing are available without purchasing that “better” thing. Just a thought.