As anticipated, Apple introduced its Amazon Echo and Google Home competitor today at WWDC, its developer conference in San Jose. The retro-named HomePod has Siri built in, but Apple didn’t lead with that or immediately present the new device as a stand-alone virtual assistant.
The company made its pitch by emphasizing the sound quality of the speaker and the overall music experience (Apple Music is integrated). Apple initially presented HomePod as a Sonos competitor rather than a rival for Google Home and Echo. The virtual assistant features were mentioned almost as an afterthought.
The HomePod with Siri can do most or all of the things that Google Home and Amazon Echo do, although there was no discussion of a developer ecosystem (that’s coming, undoubtedly). We won’t know how well it performs versus the other devices until it’s released in December.
At $349, it’s the most expensive of the three; Echo retails for $179 and Google Home for $129. Amazon’s new Echo Show, with a screen, is $229. Once again, Apple is not trying to compete on price but is presenting its device as the premium choice.
A subtle but important — for some consumers — feature is the fact that Apple is doing more around privacy than its rivals. Unlike both Google Home and the Amazon Echo, HomePod won’t listen all the time or record what is being said in the room:
With HomePod, only after “Hey Siri” is recognized locally on the device will any information be sent to Apple servers, encrypted and sent using an anonymous Siri identifier.
In addition to HomePod with Siri, there were a number of Siri improvements and upgrades announced today:
- It will feature a more natural-sounding voice interface.
- There will be a new male voice for the US market.
- It will be able to have more conversational interaction, with follow-up answers.
- There’s a new, more visual UI.
- Siri will now provide more results for queries.
- It will translate from English into five other languages.
- It will make context-sensitive and proactive/predictive suggestions.
Apple said that Siri is currently used at least monthly on 375 million devices, in 36 countries and in 21 languages. However, Apple has a long way to go to catch up to Amazon, and even Google, in the smart speaker market. It’s estimated that Amazon has an installed base of nearly 12 million Alexa devices. Google’s numbers are less certain but probably in the low millions.
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