In a move that surprised many, Apple last week quietly confirmed that it was pulling the plug on its HomePod speaker. The company will instead focus on its much less expensive HomePod mini product, although it will continue to support the $299 HomePod for an undetermined amount of time. As the first “Home” branded hardware for Apple, it’s ironic that the HomePod failed partially because of the smart home market trends.
I say that for a few reasons. The first and most obvious is the price of the HomePod.
When it debuted in 2017, Apple sold it for $349. I have a HomePod and yes, the sound is fantastic. But there are many other speakers that sound as good or nearly as good for far less money.
And Apple isn’t the only company to realize this. Just three months ago, Google discontinued the even more costly $399 Google Home Max smart speaker. Amazon hasn’t caught on yet and still offers the Echo Studio but the price is a more palpable $199. The cost rises to $329 if you want the optional subwoofer component.
Don’t forget the other brands that make solid speakers, some of which have added support for various digital assistants. The sound quality of the Sonos One, for example, gets you close to a HomePod for $199 and lets you use Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, plus Apple AirPlay 2 for music. Simply put, you don’t need to spend $300 or more for a great-sounding speaker that can also command your smart home.
And that leads me to the second reason: You don’t need an expensive speaker to do your smart home bidding.
None of the smart speaker brands release sales figures, let alone sales by model. However, it’s a safe bet that the smallest speakers have the biggest sales footprint. For under $50, you can get a basic smart speaker for the smart home from either Amazon or Google. These little devices are often given away as promotions for other products and services.
If you want richer sound, you simply have to double your money: $99 (or less, during sales) gets you a nice current-generation Amazon Echo or Google Nest Audio smart speaker. It can even get you an Apple HomePod mini. No, none of these have the power and sound stage as the HomePod but for most mainstream consumers, they’re more than good enough. And you can still speak to your HomeKit accessories through Siri.
There’s something else that $99 HomePod mini can do that the $299 HomePod can’t, and this is important to HomeKit’s future: It can act as a Thread router.
Thread is a protocol that Amazon, Apple, Google, and scores of other smart home companies are using to support the forthcoming Project CHIP. And while the omission of it in the original HomePod is understandable since Thread has only recently gained traction, it’s an omission nonetheless.
I looked into what wireless chips are used in the original HomePod and it uses Broadcom silicon from 2016. It’s unlikely that Thread support could have been added to the product. So I see the HomePod discontinuation partly the result of its cost to value ratio and because it has a limited future in the HomeKit home of tomorrow.
However, Apple still refuses to offer what I see as an essential element in the smart home of tomorrow. A display. The company has essentially ceded the smart display market to Amazon and Google here in the U.S.
I realize that the AppleTV can offer some smart display features. You can view a supported video doorbell feed, for example, as you’re watching television. But if you’re not in front of the TV consuming content when that visitor arrives, you don’t have a smart display when you need it in Apple’s world.
I also know that some will read this and say, “Apple has a smart display; it’s called the iPad.” As an iPad Pro user, I understand the sentiment. I also disagree with it, having used just about every smart display on the market since they arrived.
There’s a fundamental difference between a mobile computing tablet and a purpose-built, always-on smart display. In my house, like many other houses, someone may be using the iPad for games, video, or web browsing. When that happens, my iPad is about as good a smart display as the AppleTV when it’s turned off. Having a dedicated screen, speaker, and microphone combination placed in a key area, or areas, of the home is the value add here.
So with the HomePod no longer being produced, will Apple make a Siri-based smart display? I have no knowledge of the company’s plans, of course, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
Given the standardized chips and components Apple uses across its product line, I’m sure it could make an iPad mini smart display that’s always on and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.
Add an always-connected power cord, keep the price between $129 to $159 and make sure Thread support is there to make it a compelling package. The sound doesn’t even have to be better than what the HomePod mini puts out, although the closer the better.
I know I’d buy one if those requirements were met. Maybe I’d even buy two which would still cost me less than the original Apple HomePod while giving me a better HomeKit experience.