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Why Apple's HomePod Is Three Years Behind Amazon's Echo (bloomberg.com) 96

Apple unveiled the HomePod, its first smart speaker to take on market-leading Amazon's Echo lineup of speakers, in June this year. Despite being three years late to the party, the HomePod has largely been pitched more as a speaker that sounds great instead of a device that sounds great but more importantly can also help you with daily chores. On top of this, Apple said last week it was delaying the shipment of HomePod from December this year to "early 2018." So why does a company, the market valuation of which is quickly reaching a trillion dollar, so behind its competitors? Bloomberg reports on Tuesday: Apple audio engineers had been working on an early version of the HomePod speaker for about two years in 2014 when they were blindsided by the Echo, a smart speaker from Amazon with a voice-activated assistant named Alexa. The Apple engineers jokingly accused one another of leaking details of their project to Amazon, then bought Echos so they could take them apart and see how they were put together. They quickly deemed the Echo's sound quality inferior and got back to work building a better speaker. More than two years passed. In that time Amazon's Echo became a hit with consumers impressed by Alexa's ability to answer questions, order pizzas and turn lights on and off. Meanwhile, Apple dithered over its own speaker, according to people familiar with the situation. The project was cancelled and revived several times, they said, and the device went through multiple permutations (at one point it stood 3 feet tall) as executives struggled to figure out how it would fit into the home and Apple's ecosystem of products and services. In the end, the company plowed ahead, figuring that creating a speaker would give customers another reason to stay loyal. 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.
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Why Apple's HomePod Is Three Years Behind Amazon's Echo

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 21, 2017 @03:53PM (#55597993)

    Apple's entire schtick is letting the market find great ideas, and then making those ideas appealing.

    Literally everything Apple offers stems from this business model.

    • by Anonymous Coward
      I have an Echo and three Dots in my home. It's all about privilege. I am more technologically savvy than everyone and that's the way it will stay.
      • I have an Echo and three Dots in my home.

        Have you considered sound-deadening foam and a new coat of paint? That would deal with all of those issues.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I literally had the idea for an mp3 player that had a phone on it. Now you're telling me it's reasonable to assume that Apple stole my idea?

    • But they were wireless speakers before the Echo. Apple was probably just trying to get away with a set of speakers with Siri... Amazon raised the bar on them. Which is what Apple did with the iPhone, back in 2007. Android was about to get into the smart phone market, however their idea of a smartphone for the consumer were flip phones with keyboards and bigger screens. Apple forced them them to change their model. Thus delayed Android Release in phones for a couple years.

      I never got into these smart spea

    • by 0100010001010011 ( 652467 ) on Tuesday November 21, 2017 @04:39PM (#55598381)

      The difference this time is the competitor got it right.

      The iPod wouldn't have been a success if all the other MP3 players of the day didn't suck. My first 2 iPods were amazing devices. Firewire booting, I could carry a second hard drive to boot from.

      Amazon got it 'right' to consumers and Apple is playing catch up. Which is hard to do given Amazon's demographic spread compared to Apple's.

      • by JaredOfEuropa ( 526365 ) on Tuesday November 21, 2017 @06:00PM (#55598977) Journal
        Exactly. Like the iPhone: Apple didn't invent the smartphone, they took a good idea and made it great. But it seems that Apple increasingly have a lot of trouble even just getting it "right". Some of the recent changes to the iPhone come to mind. Every change to iTunes that made an already legendary shitty product even worse. And don't get me started on HomeKit: Apple really don't seem to get home automation (hint: it's more than just remote control). With all those billions in revenue in the balance, you'd figure they would at least get the basics right when making inroads into new markets, even if they didn't manage to raise the bar like they did with the iPhone.
      • by GNious ( 953874 )

        The iPod wouldn't have been a success if all the other MP3 players of the day didn't suck. My first 2 iPods were amazing devices. Firewire booting, I could carry a second hard drive to boot from.

        Wouldn't say my first (2002) MP3 player sucked - it was my phone, supported SD cards, had a regular plug for headphones.

        Apple marketed "better", to a crowd more eager and loyal.

  • by swb ( 14022 ) on Tuesday November 21, 2017 @04:06PM (#55598131)

    Apple make so much money from the iPhone that they don't really have a strong incentive to execute any new or innovative products. This makes it easy to waste money on side efforts like this, because, well, why bother?

    And they also get caught up in wanting it to seem "special" and not another me-too product, when, actually it really is a me-too product. Sure they can make it with Beats(tm) bass or some kind of super-duper audio which might make it seem more interesting, but that's not really particularly compelling when their customer base is already using headphones.

    Until iPhone sales start slipping badly, I don't see Apple having the motivation to do much more than bounce their profits among tax havens. Any *real* risk-taking might actually fail and thus royally piss off shareholders when it becomes a $20 billion write-off. Pissing away a half-billion or so noodling with projects like this seems like all they really need to do at this point.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Itâ(TM)s almost like the petrodollar in the Middle East.

      • by swb ( 14022 )

        It really is a similar problem. Unfortunately, if and when the iPhone crashes as a device, it will be too late for Apple and they won't be able to suddenly innovate another product like the iPhone. Just like the petrostates won't be able to invent a total new economy, either.

        IMHO, a couple of years ago Tim Cook should have convinced shareholders that either a major new product initiative was necessary even if it sucked 20% profits.

        It's unfortunate that they turned away from any kind of business or scienti

        • AR, that's where they go (and are going). Tim Cook is right, it is the next big thing, and the first one to offer a fashionable line of prescription-ready glasses wins big. And if they are able to get a modem in the glasses (which seems possible now, given what they did with Apple Watch 3) then they win even bigger. And if you doubt AR, just take a look at every person walking down the street looking down at their phones, each one of them a potential purchaser of Apple Glasses.
  • Good marketing (Score:3, Informative)

    by Theils Blood Boy ( 5137377 ) on Tuesday November 21, 2017 @04:08PM (#55598145)
    People are weary of allowing some kind of spybot in their home. If it's marketed as an Audiophile device from the makers of iPod and Beats By Dre then people will buy it and get used to using the siri like functionality and they can suck consumers deeper into the apple ecosystem. So it's not a robot that listens to everything you say, it's a perfectly harmless speaker that you can control with your voice.
  • by Guspaz ( 556486 ) on Tuesday November 21, 2017 @04:16PM (#55598201)

    Siri is very primitive compared to the competing virtual assistants. Don't get me wrong, I use Siri all the time, but mostly for things like starting timers or asking basic information. Both in terms of information retrieval capabilities and in terms of integrations with other services, Alexa is way ahead.

    The problem with the HomePod is that there are already good speakers with virtual assistants built in. The Echo may not have ideal sound quality, but Sonos also makes speakers with Alexa and Google built-in. As such, simply having good sound quality won't be enough for the HomePod to compete. Siri needs to get a *lot* better if they're going to have any chance.

    • by mrwireless ( 1056688 ) on Tuesday November 21, 2017 @05:55PM (#55598917)
      I wouldn't mind less functionality if it meant that the product is more privacy friendly.

      Currently, privacy concerns are what are keeping these devices form showing serious market growth. And rightly so.
    • None of the Echos I have heard have "good speakers". From the size of things the larger Google speaker unit seems like it might be good, but Google will absolutely strip-mine data from you in a way Apple will not (even Amazon I trust more). The Sonos speakers I have considered, but have not heard them yet so I'm not sure.

      I was looking forward to the Apple units as it sounded like they had a lot of interesting technology to actually be good speakers.

      I find it interesting you think Alexa is ahead of Siri si

      • by Guspaz ( 556486 )

        Siri is very limited in that it has very poor integration with other services. Alexa's big advantage is its massive library of integrations (which they call "skills").

        Siri seems to have very little integrations available (possibly because the Siri API is limited to a very small subset of app types), and is often unable to give verbal results, answering my questions by presenting some information on screen rather than reading it out. It just pulls a chunk of text from Wikipedia and throws it up on screen. Si

        • Siri is very limited in that it has very poor integration with other services. Alexa's big advantage is its massive library of integrations (which they call "skills").

          My observation though is people very rarely use the Alexa skills (apart from Spotify), and the Siri integration may be more limited but it is deeper and more capable for the categories it supports.

          and is often unable to give verbal results, answering my questions by presenting some information on screen rather than reading it out

          That's true of

    • Siri is very primitive compared to the competing virtual assistants. Don't get me wrong, I use Siri all the time, but mostly for things like starting timers or asking basic information. Both in terms of information retrieval capabilities and in terms of integrations with other services, Alexa is way ahead.

      very true. I use Siri in the car to make a call or send a text; but trying to search for something is a frustrating experience. I usually get a bunch of useless results from Siri. Siri is very good a doing certain things, but could be made better if the integrated it more with teh iPone's functionality. For example, why can't Siri pause audio playback in a streaming app? Or open the App and start playback, all hands free?

      The problem with the HomePod is that there are already good speakers with virtual assistants built in. The Echo may not have ideal sound quality, but Sonos also makes speakers with Alexa and Google built-in. As such, simply having good sound quality won't be enough for the HomePod to compete. Siri needs to get a *lot* better if they're going to have any chance.

      Apple's approach stems from its history as a company, just as Amazon's. Apple has kept

    • Siri is pretty advanced on certain axes—it's already capable of speaking many languages, which is not trivial. The Echo is sold in a remarkably limited number of locations and only speaks English, as far as I know. I can't buy an Echo in Canada, but I can ask Siri questions in French AND English.

      Now, is that useful? What good is an assistant that you can address in multiple languages but fails to do what you ask in any of them, after all. So it's hard to deny that Amazon is ahead in the utility race,

      • by Guspaz ( 556486 )

        You can now buy an Echo in Canada, although it's technically a pre-order as they don't ship until December 5th. Still English-only, though.

        Also, you can't exactly address Siri in multiple languages: you can only address it in the one language you select, but you can select between different languages. Small difference, but if you're an English-speaker, it means you'll have selected English, and you won't be able to address it in any other language without going into the settings and manually changing it...

  • Too narrow? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Tablizer ( 95088 ) on Tuesday November 21, 2017 @04:17PM (#55598207) Journal

    If Siri were designed as generic assistant technology, then it could be added to any new device with relatively minor tweaks. Maybe they overly hard-wired Siri's design to phones and tablets.

  • Inertia is the reason. Apple still benefits from these years of innovation, creative design, flawless programs etc... (Btw that should convince the unbelievers how amazing the work of Jobs was). But Apple has already started to lose some inertia ; will take some time until Apple fans change their mind, though.
  • by rsilvergun ( 571051 ) on Tuesday November 21, 2017 @04:22PM (#55598249)
    because they can use it to push their store front. Apple doesn't have that so it's a tougher sell. Also they'll have a hard time competing with Echo when Amazon can give the things away and make it up from store purchases & prime membership fees.
    • Yeah, because Apple are really strapped for cash. What is their reserve these days, a mere $250 billion or so? They can buy countries with that.

      But sure, I see what you're getting at. Apple can adopt the same strategy though: sell HomePod at a loss to lock people tighter into their ecosystem and sell more devices with healthy profit margins as a result. Their stuff already works like that: it works really well together with other Apple equipment, but with 3rd party devices not so much.
  • by fermion ( 181285 ) on Tuesday November 21, 2017 @04:22PM (#55598251) Homepage Journal
    I might get one of these eventually, but it is not going to a profit center for Apple. Google is much more in danger for not getting it's smart speaker out, because like Amazon the speaker helps monetize customers. Apple makes money directly, Google by collecting data on users, Amazon by making it easy for users to buy a lot of stuff.

    A smart speaker might encourage users to subscribe to the Apple music service. it is not going to sell Apps, it is not going to sell storage, it is not going to sell phone.

    The delay does mean most of us who adopted this technology adopted Amazon over Google. Google has play catchup as most people are not going to buy a Google product to supplement Alexa.

    People will buy the Apple product if it is a good speaker. One hole in the apple line up, BTW, now that they no longer do routers, is a cheap way to network speakers.

  • SONOS (Score:4, Interesting)

    by LynnwoodRooster ( 966895 ) on Tuesday November 21, 2017 @04:24PM (#55598261) Journal
    Apple, just freaking buy them already. You'd have an instant 10+ million consumers, ecosystem with much better audio than Amazon, Google, or Microsoft - and can build up as you want. Crack open the checkbook, Tim, and write out a $3 billion check. And it's yours.
  • They quickly deemed the Echo's sound quality inferior and got back to work building a better speaker

    Good grief, engineers. Sad that Apple completely missed the point on this, it seems like the home assistant space is ripe for an iPod style re-definition.

  • I think a lot of people forget that these huge faceless companies have humans running things, and more importantly, producing products. I see this a lot in the company I work for...they're desperately trying to speed up software deployment/adopt DevOps, and I think a lot of it is just fear-driven. "Thought leaders" go to these conferences and then wonder why we aren't doing 200 deployments a day in a fully containerized environment using the latest JavaScript framework that came out last week. It's fear of

  • by geekmux ( 1040042 ) on Tuesday November 21, 2017 @04:43PM (#55598421)

    "Apple audio engineers...quickly deemed the Echo's sound quality inferior and got back to work building a better speaker."

    Inferior?

    I take it Apple audio engineers have not actually used a pair of their own shitty earbuds...

    • by mjwx ( 966435 )

      "Apple audio engineers...quickly deemed the Echo's sound quality inferior and got back to work building a better speaker."

      Inferior?

      I take it Apple audio engineers have not actually used a pair of their own shitty earbuds...

      These _are_ Apple engineers. Making something white and shiny is more important than making it work, let alone making it work well. The matt black outside of an Echo device is clearly a huge flaw.

      Seriously though, the Echo speakers are pretty bad, which is why they've got a 3.5mm port so you can connect a decent set of speakers. Again, to Apple's Imagineers this is a huge flaw in the device. However bad the Echo speakers are, they are still better than any Apple (or Beats) product I've heard (before anyo

  • Is there a Apple product that aren't 2 years behind any other product ?

  • In the end, the company plowed ahead, figuring that creating a speaker would give customers another reason to stay loyal.

    You want customers to stay loyal?

    WHAT. THE. FUCK.

    You fucking, clueless idiots.

    Start by putting back a few USB 3.0 type-A ports on your computers. USB C may be the future but USB-A is still in wide use today.

    Put back user-accessible RAM slots in your computers. We're not all made of money and can't afford to pay your over-inflated RAM price at the same time we buy your expensive computers.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      You are not the target market they're aiming for.

      The target market they're aiming for doesn't care about a few thousand dollars (or even if they do, are willing to pony it up), or even the performance crown...

  • Apple assessed the market and while voice assistants gaining ground they want the experience and margins to warrant the effort vs a me too dud. Second mouse vs early bird. The Apple watch doing ok better than others. The hands free use case is nice if hands full, dirty etc... So look forward to advances but given privacy concerns And modest utility for home use I am waiting for more so in the second mouse camp. I have a 1st gen Apple Watch since had features I desired at a reasonable price so was an earl
  • This is the same problem Microsoft had with its stuff back in the day: forcing something to fit into the ecosystem.

    Not everything has to run iOS or a variant, guys. Not everything has to leverage your own dog food. Not everything has to be a billion dollar hit.

    Apple is forgetting how to launch a product because Apple doesn't do it often enough anymore. Apple is forgetting how to make decisions because they don't know how to anymore. This is an unfortunate trend that will only get worse.

    I mean, Cook had to b

  • as executives struggled to figure out how it would fit into the home and Apple's ecosystem of products and services

    This illustrates the problem perfectly.

    Amazon have a business model of selling lots of inexpensive products and services (including a music service geared to streaming). Alexa makes this easier. Amazon don't care if it's not perfect. It doesn't even need to be all that profitable in itself. It just needs to sell these other srervices.

    Apple sell to people who care about quality (or at least

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