Apple's Siri aims to be in tune with your home arrangements

Apple unveiled the HomePod at its Worldwide Developer Conference on Monday. With Apple's virtual voice assistant Siri built into it, the HomePod will compete with voice-activated speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home.
Apple unveiled the HomePod at its Worldwide Developer Conference on Monday. With Apple's virtual voice assistant Siri built into it, the HomePod will compete with voice-activated speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home.ST PHOTO: TREVOR TAN

Apple unveiled the HomePod, a Siri-enabled speaker, at the start of its annual Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC), a move seen as a challenge to Amazon and Google in the smart home space.

Monday's launch was also unusual by Apple standards. The Cupertino tech giant's WWDC is traditionally more focused on its software.

As expected, Apple also unveiled new operating systems for its iPhone, Mac, Apple Watch and Apple TV products. But this year, Apple took the opportunity to announce not just a smart speaker, but also a new 10.5-inch iPad Pro, a professional-centric iMac Pro all-in-one desktop computer, as well as updated versions of the iMac and MacBook Pro computers.

However, the star of the event was the HomePod. With Apple's virtual voice assistant Siri built into it, this smart speaker for homes is in direct competition with voice-activated speakers such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home.

"Just like with portable music, we want to reinvent home music," said Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook of the HomePod, which can link up to digital tunes from Apple Music, a subscription music streaming service.

Like the Echo and Home, Apple's HomePod not only plays music with a voice command, but can also answer users' questions and provide information like news, weather updates and sports scores.

And, like the other smart speakers, the HomePod can link up with smart devices in the home, such as connected light bulbs, so a user can control them with a spoken command, like switching them on or off.

More than 35 million people in the United States are predicted to use a voice-activated speaker at least once a month this year, according to research firm eMarketer.

Mr Frank Gillett, principal analyst at research firm Forrester Research, said: "Home speaker devices have become an important host for virtual assistants like Siri. If Apple had not done this, its customers would embrace Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant."

Alexa and Assistant are the digital voice assistants of Amazon and Google, respectively.

At around 17.8cm tall, the HomePod is wrapped in a mesh fabric and comes in white and grey. The speaker is powered by an A8 chip - the same chip found in the iPhone 6 - and lets the device learn its position in a room and optimise itself to deliver an immersive music listening experience, according to Apple.

"It is the biggest brain inside a speaker," Apple's marketing honcho Phil Schiller said in the WWDC keynote address.

The HomePod has seven beam forming tweeters and an upward- facing 10.2cm woofer for improved audio output, said Apple.

But at US$349 (S$480) in the US, the HomePod is nearly twice as expensive as the Echo (US$179.99) and three times the price of the Google Home (US$109).

While the HomePod's price point, compared with the competition, is a "steep barrier", Mr Gillett noted that Apple has put a much more robust processor in the device.

"They seem to be using it to drive superior user experience, sound quality and privacy," he said.

Both the Echo and Home are not available in Singapore, and the HomePod will not be coming to the Republic any time soon as well. The HomePod will be available only from December starting in the US, Britain and Australia, before reaching the rest of the world next year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2017, with the headline 'Apple's Siri aims to be in tune with your home arrangements'. Print Edition | Subscribe