Apple is in a surprisingly strong position in smart speakers despite its years-late start

Apple in October 2020 unveiled HomePod mini smart speaker, nearly two years after the original higher-priced HomePod (since discontinued), meant to deliver impressive sound, the inclusion of Siri, ostensibly to get (a very limited range of) things done, and a simple smart home experience focused on comfort and convenience without complexity.

HomePod mini works with Apple devices so customers can seamlessly hand off music or automatically receive personalized listening suggestions on iPhone.
HomePod mini works with Apple devices so customers can seamlessly hand off music or automatically receive personalized listening suggestions on iPhone.

At just 3.3 inches tall, HomePod mini is packed with innovative technologies and advanced software that together enable computational audio to deliver breakthrough audio quality wherever it is placed.

According to the most recent figures from Statista, Apple holds 10.2% share of the global smart speaker market (shipments) as of Q321 (market leader Amazon has 26.4%).

Global Smart Speaker Market Share:

Global Smart Speaker Market Share, Source: Statista
Source: Statista

Jared Newman for Fast Company:

When Apple got into the smart-speaker business with the HomePod four years ago with a sharp focus on music, it seemed to be miles behind Amazon and Google.

Those companies had spent years tacking on new features to their Alexa and Google Assistant speakers, and they had a long head start on integrating smart home devices. They’d even enlisted developers to create third-party voice skills so that users could order a Domino’s pizza or call for an Uber without lifting a finger. I admit that I bought the idea that they were building a post-phone ecosystem, and that Apple was a laggard.

But over time, that sprawling array of features has started to become a liability. Data reported on recently by Bloomberg—along with my own anecdotal experience—shows that people don’t often use their smart speakers for much beyond music and timers, and that doesn’t leave Amazon and Google with great business prospects for the speakers they’ve sold at thin-to-negative profit margins. Their attempts to clue people in to profitable features—for instance, with Alexa blurting out shopping offers in response to unrelated queries—tend to come off as unwelcome intrusions.

All of which puts Apple in a surprisingly strong position despite its late start. While the company’s market share is far lower than that of Amazon and Google, its narrower ambitions with HomePod are more in line with the way people actually use their smart speakers. Now that Apple is focusing on cheaper speakers with the HomePod Mini—it discontinued the original HomePod three years after launch—its focus could help the company win over customers in the long run, especially if Amazon’s and Google’s attempts to monetize their speakers become more desperate.

HomePod mini is now available in three bold new colors: orange, yellow, and blue, in addition to white and space gray.
HomePod mini is now available in three bold new colors: orange, yellow, and blue, in addition to white and space gray.

Priya Anand for Bloomberg Businessweek:

Each holiday season since 2015, Inc. has counted on selling a lot of its Alexa voice-controlled smart speakers. For almost as long, it’s known that the devices have had trouble holding customers’ attention even into January. According to internal data, there have been years when 15% to 25% of new Alexa users were no longer active in their second week with the device.

Concern about user retention and engagement comes up repeatedly in internal planning documents that Bloomberg Businessweek viewed. The documents, which covered 2018 to 2021, detail Amazon’s continued ambitions for Alexa, including plans to add more cameras and sensors that would allow devices to recognize different voices or determine which rooms users are in during each interaction. They also reveal the roadblocks the company sees to realizing these goals.

Amazon views one of the main barriers as concerns about privacy… The other hurdle is an even more basic challenge: People simply don’t find Alexa that useful.

Most Alexa users in many years have used voice-powered devices only to play music, or set the timer while they cook, or turn on the lights. Amazon employees noted in a planning document for 2019 that new Alexa users discover half of the features they will ever use within three hours of activating the device.

MacDailyNews Take: Yes, Apple was very late:

Something along the lines of Amazon Echo is what Apple should have done if run by competent, forward-thinking management. When Apple finally does do their version of Amazon Echo (and they will get around to doing such a product eventually) they will rightly be called a follower. The company had all of the ingredients to make their own Echo before Amazon, except for the vision, it seems.MacDailyNews, March 29, 2016

Imagine if Apple had released HomePod mini alongside HomePod back in February 2018.MacDailyNews, November 13, 2020

That said, over time, people will slowly use more capabilities of smart speakers, but it will be a very slow slog.

For example, HomePod/HomePod mini offers the Intercom feature which lets users send an Intercom message from one HomePod mini to another — whether in a different room, a specific zone, or multiple rooms throughout the home — and their voice message will automatically play on the designated HomePod mini. Intercom also works with iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, AirPods, and CarPlay, so everyone in the household can get Intercom notifications and send Intercom messages from the backyard, on their way home, or while out and about.

We bet less than 10% of HomePod/HomePod mini users have ever used Intercom – and far less than that use it regularly.

How many users ever say even the simple command, “Siri, read me the news” to their HomePod. It likely less than 25% of users.

(See also: Siri on HomePod can actually do quite a lot – February 9, 2018)

Still, over a long period of time, perhaps spurred by new devices (AR glasses) or a killer app, smart speakers will eventually be used for more than just music, timers, and temperature.

In closing:

As usual, the issue is Siri. Apple’s personal assistant is even further handicapped than usual on HomePod with every third response being “I can’t do that on HomePod” or “If you ask Siri on your iPhone, I can tell you that.”

Go ahead, ask your HomePod or HomePod mini, “Hey Siri, play me [artist]’s most popular song.” You’d expect Siri to be able to accomplish that much, at least, in 2021, wouldn’t you? But, Siri can’t even manage that simple request. Siri fails at a painfully obvious use case. Your HomePod will play a song by that artist, but not their most popular song, unless it’s by a lucky coincidence, even though Apple Music has that data. Siri seems, as always, oblivious and incapable.

And, by the way, having one product called “HomePod mini” is stupid. It leads a potential customer to ask, “Well, where’s the real HomePod?” You know, for every “mini” Apple product there’s at least one big brother (Mac mini, iPhone 12 mini, iPhone 13 mini).

“So, where’s the real HomePod?”
“Oh, that? “It failed.”

That’s not a huge confidence boost for “HomePod mini.” A prospective buyer might rightly wonder, “Hmm, for how long is Apple going to remain committed to this ‘mini’ product if its parent is already canceled?”

Hint to Apple: If that’s the only HomePod you currently have to offer, at least change its name. Duh.MacDailyNews, October 15, 2021

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  1. Remember Apple’s pitch at the launch of HomePod? “A musicologist in your home.” A lot of talk about, “hey, you can ask Siri, who’s the drummer on this? What other albums has the producer made?”

    Yeah here in reality, none of that works, or works very, very sporadically.

  2. I haven’t used Siri in over a year. I truly am better off because of it…less aggravation and time saved trying to assist Siri in getting it right.

    Beyond this, I cannot understand Apple’s move away from big spacial sound…beyond the personal “in-your-ears” type. Apple Music, Apple TV,_movies, TV shows and yes…listening to music over the air/in broad big space. Apple; where are you?

    Though long given up for dead, “we’ve cracked it,” (Jobs per figuring out the TV thing). I haven’t forgotten about it because it’s still an elephant in my room. However it may look, make it the smartest, most interconnected and versatile device that would incorporate and maximize all/most of Apple’s media, communication and computational abilities?

    Back to sound…let it be part of big, or bigger sound…with Apple finesse.

    1. I only use Siri for very specific requests in a well-rehearsed cadence and pronounciation, namely: reminders, weather, calculator, rewinding Audible, a currency conversion (works 50% of the time) and playing a local radio station (on Homepod). The latest quirk is that I often have to repeat “Hey Siri” 2-3 times to trigger it on my Homepod. A silent update appears to have changed the sounds Siri makes to signal that she’s listening and I get an annoying “volume up” announcement instead of a sound now on Homepod. Remember when we were told that you can just say “hey siri” and make your request without pausing to listen if she heard it? Yeah, I pause, because at least a quarter of the time I’m speaking to dead air.

  3. I only use the HomePod as pseudo atmos speaker got the TV. Works pretty well other than only thru Apple TV and takes up a small footprint. I ask Siri with my iPhone.

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