Commentary

Apple blazes a trail with the HomePod

The product is a whole new genre for the company since the Apple Watch announcement in 2015

In a packed hands-on area for media at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center after the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) keynote last week, I was having trouble getting to the HomePod.

The newly announced Siri-enabled speaker was swarmed by media from everywhere.

In fact, I was so focused on getting video footage and pictures of the HomePod that I missed out photographing the iMac Pro. But that's also thanks to an Apple product manager who had told me that no iMac Pro was on show. That is probably the one computer I want this year. Argh.

Anyway, back to the HomePod. It is undoubtedly the highlight of the WWDC 2017 keynote. And it is rather significant, actually.

The HomePod represents a new product line-up and a whole new genre for Apple since the announcement of the Apple Watch smartwatch in 2015.

Apple might want to surprise consumers with new product releases, but it also painstakingly makes sure the new products will be available soon after their announcements.

For example, the refreshed MacBook Pros and iMac were available immediately upon their announcements last week, while the new 10.5-inch iPad Pro is available this week.

HomePod smart speakers on display at WWDC 2017 last week. While the product will not be available till December, the early announcement shows Apple wants to prevent buyers from rushing into other voice-activated speakers.
HomePod smart speakers on display at WWDC 2017 last week. While the product will not be available till December, the early announcement shows Apple wants to prevent buyers from rushing into other voice-activated speakers. ST PHOTO: TREVOR TAN

The fact that the HomePod was unveiled even though it will not be available until December this year in certain markets speaks volumes. It suggests that Apple wants you to hold your horses on the purchase of other voice-activated intelligent home speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home.

Intelligent home-speaker shipments reached 5.9 million units globally in 2016 and are expected to grow tenfold by 2022, according to Britain-based research firm Strategy Analytics.

The firm also predicted that the value of the intelligent home-speaker market will exceed US$1.5 billion (S$2.1 billion) this year and reach US$5.5 billion by 2022.

It is a market that Apple needs to get into before Amazon and Google dominate this emerging and profitable space. This move also helps to diversify Apple's portfolio and reduce its reliance on its iPhone sales performance.

Apple's marketing chief Phil Schiller said the HomePod will work closely with the iOS Music app, which I am sure it will. In fact, Apple has to provide a more seamless experience with the HomePod.

Not only will it help to drive hardware sales, but the HomePod will also help to drive Apple's service business that includes Apple Music.

In an interview with Bloomberg last week, Apple's chief executive officer Tim Cook stressed the importance of its service business and predicted that it will double in size by 2021.

Apple needs a smart speaker in homes for its music-streaming service, Apple Music. It is strange that the Cupertino tech giant has to rely on other speaker makers like Sonos or Bose to stream its music services.

The only issue I think will be its price tag. At US$349 in the United States, the HomePod costs nearly twice as much as the Amazon Echo (US$179.99) and three times the price of Google Home (US$109).

For years, Apple has been perceived to be overcharging for its products, because of their "premium-ness". But Mr Schiller is selling the HomePod as a combination of a great speaker and a great intelligent assistant to justify its hefty price tag.

To be fair, some wireless speakers from the likes of Sonos or Bose are not particularly cheap.

But if anyone is to buy into Apple's walled garden, it would be Apple fans who are more than willing to part with their cash for something that sounds like music to their ears.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2017, with the headline 'Apple blazes a trail with the HomePod'. Print Edition | Subscribe