Innovation

Apple takes on Amazon Echo with $350 Siri-powered HomePod

At WWDC 2017 in San Jose, Apple executives unveiled their Amazon Echo competitor and a variety of upgrades to Siri in iOS11.

Siri has officially entered the smart speaker market. At WWDC 2017 in San Jose on Monday, Apple executives announced a number of updates to Siri with iOS11, perhaps the largest being its integration into a new smart speaker called HomePod.

"Just like iPod reinvented music in our pockets, HomePod is going to reinvent music in our homes," said Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide marketing at Apple, during the keynote speech.

Rumors of Apple building an Echo competitor were first reported a year ago. Now, Apple is clearly trying to differentiate itself from Amazon and Google by targeting music lovers with the speaker: While the Amazon Echo is a smart speaker, it lacks quality audio capabilities, Schiller said. Schiller added HomePod's abilities as a digital assistant almost as an end note during the keynote speech.

HomePod is cylindrical, just under seven inches tall, and covered in a 3D mesh fabric. An Apple A8 chip, the same as found in an iPhone, controls the device—providing the largest brain to be found in a smart speaker, Schiller said. HomePod also automatically detects the space it is within, and uses that information to adjust and balance the audio depending on the room. It can recognize a voice command from anywhere in a room, even while music is playing, Schiller said.

SEE: Apple's Siri: The smart person's guide

The speaker connects with a user's Apple Music account. Via Siri, a user can give commands or ask questions such as "Play Beats 1 radio," "Who is singing on this track?" "I like this song," "What was the top song in 1983?" and "Play more like this." It includes a six microphone array around the speaker, as well as a four-inch woofer, automatic bass equalization, real-time acoustic modeling, audio beam-forming, and multi-channel echo cancellation.

Similar to the Amazon Echo and Google Home, on HomePod, Siri can provide news, unit conversions, messaging, reminders, podcasts, alarms and timers, translations, stocks, general knowledge, weather, traffic, and sports information.

HomePod also uses Siri to connect to home IoT devices via the HomeKit, allowing you to access your smart home devices from anywhere in the world, Schiller said.

Schiller also addressed privacy concerns: Until the device hears "Hey Siri," it does not send any other communication to Apple, he said. When it does hear the command, it sends an anonymous Siri ID to Apple to fulfill your request, and all communication is encrypted.

HomePod is priced at $349, and will be available in December in the US, the UK, and Australia. Next year, it will be available worldwide. This is a much higher price point than Amazon Echo, at $180, and Google Home, at $129, and it remains to be seen if this will be an issue for consumers.

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Image: Sean Hollister/CNET

Other Siri upgrades

With iOS11, Siri's voice is getting an upgrade. Developers used deep learning to create more natural, expressive male and female voices for Siri, which can say words in different ways depending on context, said Craig Federighi, Apple's senior vice president of software engineering, during the keynote.

Siri's upgrade also includes a new visual interface, and the ability to provide users with follow up questions and answers with just a tap. It also offers multiple results when you make a query.

A major new capability impacting business users is translation. You can now ask Siri, "How do you say 'What are the most popular dishes in your restaurant' in Chinese?" and Siri will respond in Chinese, Federighi said. Initially, Siri will be able to translate from English to Chinese, French, German, Italian, and Spanish, with more language options available in coming months.

SiriKit also has more capabilities in iOS11, including easy integrations with apps for task management, banking, and others. The digital assistant can better understand your voice, the context of your requests, your interests, how you use your device, and ultimately, what you want next, Federighi said. It can now predict what news stories you might want to read, and can respond to a text message asking "Where are you?" with an estimation of when you will arrive at a given location. It can also make a calendar appointment based on an event booked through Safari.

What Siri learns will now get synced across all devices, with end-to-end encryption, so you can use one Siri across all devices, Federighi said.

SEE: Apple's new HomePod smart speaker brings Siri home (CNET)

Siri in iOS11 is able to better learn how you use your device. For example, Federighi said, if you research Iceland, when you go to News, Siri will suggest an article about Iceland. And if you tap into an article about locations in Iceland, Siri will remember them, and suggest them as you type in messages.

Apple also announced a new Siri face on the Apple Watch OS4, which automatically displays the information most relevant to you, using machine learning to adapt automatically based on your routines and commonly used apps. You can tap a Siri icon in the top left corner to access the assistant directly from the watch face as well.

The Siri watch face will change depending on time of day, automatically bringing up relevant information such as commute time, meeting reminders, and flight times. You can also pull up flight and movie tickets right on the watch with one tap. Watch OS4 will be available as a free upgrade to all Apple Watches this fall.

Siri is what will ultimately make or break Apple's future, according to ZDNet's Adrian Kingsley-Hughes. iPhone and iPad sales are on the downturn, and Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and Facebook are outpacing the company when it comes to hardware innovation and new technologies like augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI). However, with HomePod, Siri can help Apple compete with the likes of Amazon Alexa and Google Home with an interface-free device that people can interact with via voice command.

Siri is used on more than 375 million devices per month. The assistant is available in 21 languages across 31 countries—more than any other assistant, Federighi said.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

1. At WWDC in San Jose on Monday, Apple executives announced the HomePod, a home assistant and wireless speaker set to compete with the Amazon Echo and Google Home.

2. The HomePod is priced at $349, and will be available in the US, the UK, and Australia in December.

3. Apple also announced a number of new updates to Siri with iOS11, including translation capabilities, and more advanced machine learning capabilities to better predict a user's needs.

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About Alison DeNisco

Alison DeNisco is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO and the convergence of tech and the workplace.

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