Death of the HomePod – Rise of the Mini

It was announced over the weekend in an article original reported by TechCrunch that the original HomePod will be discontinued. Sales of the original HomePod will continue while supplies last, but there will be no new production of the device. Apple instead focusing their intentions on the HomePod Mini. Quoting Apple’s statement to TechCrunch:

HomePod mini has been a hit since its debut last fall, offering customers amazing sound, an intelligent assistant, and smart home control all for just $99. We are focusing our efforts on HomePod mini. We are discontinuing the original HomePod, it will continue to be available while supplies last through the Apple Online Store, Apple Retail Stores, and Apple Authorized Resellers. Apple will provide HomePod customers with software updates and service and support through Apple Care.

Apple to TechCrunch –

Let Us Remember the HomePod as it was:

An original HomePod in black, Image courtesy of Apple

The original HomePod released in 2018 to mixed reviews. The most universal positive note was that the HomePod was the best sounding speaker of any on the market. Even the best Google Home and Amazon Alexa devices could not compete with it on sound quality. And this fit what Apple wanted – to make a smart SPEAKER that focused on the audio quality compared to the SMART speakers that Amazon and Google provider that had great (arguably better) voice assistants with less than ideal sound quality. However, the competition made up the lack of sound with nearly everything else. As previously mentioned, Siri lacks a number of things that Google and the Echo devices do well when it comes to smart assistants. They also had a variety of models with cheaper models being below $100. Compare that the original’s $350 price tag. And while it wasn’t a great speaker, there wasn’t much else you could do if you listened to music outside of either Apple Music or iTunes purchases. Sure you could AirPlay content for a number of Apple devices, but that was an extra step in the process and was separate from your voice entirely. While Google and Echo preferred their own music services, they had options to allow you to stream other music services via voice or even default to those other services, ones like Pandora, Spotify, TuneIn, and more.

Over the years, Apple has addressed many of these issues. First Apple reduced the price of the original HomePod to $299, then with the HomePod Mini Apple now had a product that still sounded very good for its class, but sat under the $100 price point. With OS 14, Apple introduced the ability to default to other music services including Pandora, Amazon Music, and more (the notable absence being Spotify, where they’ve continued to butt heads). And with the introduction of Shortcuts, you could now trigger create many of your own voice commands for Siri on your phone, and the HomePod would automatically recognize and run then.

Still, the HomePod has struggled against the competition. In 2021, the HomePod will likely only reach about 5% of the global smart speaker market according to Canalys. Anecdotally, I know more people who have an Echo or Google Home Unit than even know what that Apple has a competitor in the smart speaker space. Most the people that know about it seem to be Apple enthusiasts or those in the tech sphere. And while Siri has gotten better, especially with Shortcuts, Siri has still struggled to be as good as Google and Amazon have made their speakers due perhaps in part to Apple’s own limits on data collection and use. There are some areas where that privacy-first model have not helped them. And really the only major HomePod news between the release of the original and the Mini that comes to mind is the originals staining some surfaces with a white ring.

It honestly makes sense that the original HomePod would discontinued for its cheaper sibling. Most people that want a smart speaker are still going to be price conscious and are willing to settle for good enough audio rather than great audio, while those that want great audio may be willing to forgo the smart aspect to buy even better speakers, or even connect a cheaper assistant to those better speakers. The original HomePod, which I have and enjoy, seemingly sits in an unusual mushy middle.

What the Mini Should Do to be Better:

A white HomePod mini, Image courtesy of Apple

The HomePod lineup is a little weaker now with the original HomePod gone and the Mini left as the only thing standing, but this is not to say the HomePod is out yet. It will be a hard road, but let’s think about what the Mini can do better.

Let’s start with the strengths. For one, let’s talk about the price. There are still some smart speakers that go for $50. Still a fair bit cheaper than Apple, so what can Apple offer? The Mini is still one of the best quality speakers on the market for its size. At a certain point the audio across these smaller devices becomes subjective so some other devices may sound better to your ear, but most reviewers tend to agree it still is solid. Apple also can maintain its strong privacy stance. As we’ve kept learning about privacy invasive and tracking techniques, more people are turning to privacy protecting devices, apps, extensions, and services, almost all of which Apple makes or can support through third-parties. Even other vendors are beginning to take notice and follow suit, even if somewhat begrudgingly. Apple can use that momentum to help bolster that privacy position – “a smart speaker that listens to you but doesn’t tell anyone else”. Also we should talk about HomePod’s accessibility functionality with things like Handoff and Intercom, but Steven Aquino described it better in his Forbes article so you should check that out.

Apple still has plenty of room to improve. I don’t think they can or should budge from the $99 price point, but they need highlight the HomePod and its value more. I’ve seen ads for the iPhone before YouTube videos, I’d seen MacBook ads on TV, I’ve even seen Apple TV+ ads in real life. What I can’t think of is the last time I saw a HomePod ad since the Mini’s announcement. Nobody knows that the HomePods exist, and that’s a problem. Apple doesn’t need to have a sleeper hit, they need to have a legitimate campaign to make people even aware that they have a smart speaker.

To have a smart speaker, you need to have Smarts. Siri is good and has gotten better, but it lags in some areas. Even ignoring Apple’s privacy limitations, it seems the Google and Amazon have put a lot more effort into their smart assistants than Apple has in Siri. This may not be true, but from the outside it certainly seems that way. Apple should at least show some further commitment to Siri as a platform.

That may also mean highlighting Shortcuts more. Shortcuts are an incredibly powerful tool, and Apple has included a lot in here from the original groundwork laid. Making them not only compatible with Siri, but with third-party apps via API’s, and even making Shortcuts sharable is fantastic, and there is even a devoted little community. It can be nearly as deep or as simple as you need to be. But for any system as powerful as this, Apple may need to do a little more broadcasting about this feature to get it the attention it deserves because it could have more potential than the Alexa skills because it is a little more approachable to the average user than Alexa skills are. And ironically for Apple, you don’t necessarily need an App Store to get these. The most mainstream attention Shortcuts got were with the release of iOS 14 when it included Widget and custom launch icons and app launching capabilities. And Apple took notice that people really liked this and even quickly addressed the one complaint with it, that these Shortcuts had to go launch the Shortcuts App first before jumping into the app you wanted, by removing that little hurdle in the next major update.

There are other things I think Apple could do with the HomePod, but some of these relate to opening up to non-Apple users or require new hardware to do. And we didn’t even talk about HomeKit support. But the concerns above are a few that I think are reasonably addressable by Apple even in the next few version of software. More importantly, a lot of these things could be done with Apple being a better messenger and advocate for the HomePod and its services. Apple is known for masterful control of their messaging and delivery, maybe it’s about time they turned some of that to the HomePod Mini.

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