Sometime later this year, Apple’s $349 smart speaker, called HomePod, will go on sale.
The HomePod may be many things: a high-quality speaker, another possibly overpriced Apple product, or an odd move from a company best known for portable devices.
One thing it is not — at least, not yet — is a Trojan horse for Apple to put artificial intelligence in your house that talks to you and runs your house and life.
One key to understanding Apple is that it doesn’t pursue technologies for their own sake. It builds things that people presumably want — the user experience, or the reason why someone would pay for it, comes first.
Apple thinks that people will buy the HomePod because they want a premium stereo. Nowhere is this clearer than in comments that Apple CEO Tim Cook gave to Businessweek earlier this month.
“The thing that has arguably not gotten a great level of focus is music in the home. So we decided we would combine great sound and an intelligent speaker,” Cook told Bloomberg’s Megan Murphy.
“When I was growing up, audio was No. 1 on the list of things that you had to have. You were jammin’ out on your stereo. Audio is still really important in all age groups, not just for kids. We’re hitting on something people will be delighted with. It’s gonna blow them away. It’s gonna rock the house,” he continued.
This is completely in line with how late CEO Steve Jobs described the company in 2010. Apple’s philosophy is to “make extremely advanced products from a technology point of view but also have them be intuitive, easy to use, fun to use, so that they really fit the users and users don’t have to come to them, they come to the user,” Jobs said.
Notice what Jobs didn’t say: Apple’s goal is not to have the most drool-worthy pure technology that people in Silicon Valley see as the future of computing — although it’s doing that a little bit lately, particularly with its experiments in augmented reality, a very early emerging technology.
Apple’s not really a tech company. As independent Apple analyst Neil Cybart has previously argued, it’s a design company, and with HomePod, it’s designed an easier way to play high-quality sound in your home. It’s almost incidental that Apple’s using Siri as its main control system.
For the most part, Apple only likes to talk about tech that it’s about to sell. As Cook told MIT Technology Review earlier this month, a lot of technology companies “sell futures” — and you’ll be able to buy a HomePod later this year.
Rock the house
I’ve personally heard the HomePod, and I can tell you, in my brief listening experience in a controlled and simulated living room, it does sound great.
I heard HomePod play the same songs as the Sonos Play 3, which is a premium speaker that you can’t talk to, as well as the Amazon Echo, which is a cheap speaker that exists to be spoken to.
HomePod clearly sounded better than both to my ears. For someone who wants a really good home stereo, and price isn’t a major factor, I suspect the HomePod will have to be a consideration.
Eventually, you’ll be able to talk to Apple’s Siri on the HomePod. But I didn’t get a chance. Apple didn’t want the story out of its recent WWDC conference to be how impressive Siri is — it wanted it to be that the sound is amazing.
I buy that. Siri can still be frustrating to use. And studies show that when people talk to their Amazon Echo, the most common thing they do is tell is to play music.
Someday, futurists imagine, these speakers will contain a generalized artificial intelligence that humans can converse with, rely on, or maybe fall in love with (ever see the movie “Her”?).
But that’s not what Siri is. Siri is a complicated piece of software that uses machine learning to understand what you say and return answers. Machine learning is a key component of creating an AI, but it’s also used all over technology — for example, to keep your iPhone’s battery lasting longer. It’s merely a way of solving a problem that’s hard to define with simple rules.
So Apple doesn’t want to be compared against “futures.” With the HomePod, Apple’s not saying Siri will become your new virtual friend, like the future depicted in movies like “Her.” Apple didn’t even tell its armies of software makers how to program simple apps for the speaker.
Apple is simply saying it will rock the house.