Artificial Intelligence

Apple's HomePod problem: Too much Siri for its own good?

Apple's HomePod can barely muster 4% market share today, which may be because we've already given up on Siri's ability to make our lives easier.

Apple's HomePod should have been king of the smart speaker market. Instead, it's projected to merit a distant third to Amazon and Google by 2022, and can only muster a meager 4% market share today. This is bizarre in some ways, given that the Siri-driven HomePod should be the most familiar product on the market, due to widespread use of Siri on smartphones. Unfortunately, it may well be that familiarity that has ensured Apple began its smart speaker journey in a deficit position, rather than as a leader.

A growing market

According to analyst firm Canalys, we should see roughly 100 million smart speakers like the Amazon Echo by the end of 2018, doubling from 2017's total. By 2020, that number should more than double again to 225 million smart speaker units.

Clearly, it's a growth market.

SEE: Internet of Things policy (Tech Pro Research)

Unfortunately, how much it's growing depends upon where you sit. If you're Amazon, which owns 50% of the market, life is good, though its projected 34% market share by 2022 is cause for concern. If you're Google, with 30% of the market today and a projected 34% by 2022, Canalys noted, life is perhaps even better. But if you're Apple, which will limp from 4% market share today to just 10% by 2022, life isn't good at all.

Smart speaker growth
Image: Canalys

Given the importance of attracting developers to their platforms, market share matters a great deal. But given that same importance, and Apple's long-time lovefest with developers, it's baffling that Apple's HomePod is such a laggard.

We know thee too well

Or perhaps not. There are, for example, a number of well-known flaws in Apple's HomePods, starting with its silo'd approach. Amazon's Echo and Google's Home both work standalone, whereas to get the most from the HomePod you need your iPhone. Or you need to be prepared to "live entirely inside Apple's ecosystem in a way that even Apple's other products do not," as Nilay Patel has written.

This wouldn't be so bad, except that even for those of us who do live in Apple's world, the HomePod can still frustrate. I can, for example, ask Amazon's Alexa to "play Duran Duran 'Ordinary World'" and it does so, no questions asked, despite the fact that I've never bought that song through Amazon.

I have, however, bought it through iTunes, yet for most of my music the HomePod tells me I don't have the right to listen to it (presumably because I bought it with my family's master Apple account and someone set up the HomePod for one of the individual accounts??). I'm not sure, but that's the point: Amazon just does what I ask. Apple makes me try to figure out how to find a credentialing system so that I can hear my music on its superior speaker.

Given that the only reason I bought the HomePod was to get that superior sound, it's a big miss by Apple to make me figure out how to parse my family's different IDs rather than have Apple figure it out for me. (Given that all get charged to the same credit card and roll up to the same master account/ID, this really shouldn't be too hard.)

SEE: Apple's Siri: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

This particular frustration, however, may point to a larger reason why so few have been willing to give the HomePod a try: We know Siri and its limitations too well.

I don't have Google Home but we have been using Alexa in our home for over a year. While many will tout all the amazing skills that Alexa has, the reality is that I (and you) don't use 99.99% of them. We listen to books, set timers, and maybe one or two other things. As for my family, we bought the Echo originally thinking it could do amazing things, but have settled in to satisfaction with the very few things it does well.

With the HomePod, given what we already knew of Siri, we assumed it wouldn't be able to do much of anything well. Hence, we bought the HomePod simply to play music. Now that it has become so difficult to accomplish even that, it's Alexa we regularly talk to, not Siri.

As such, while there may be numerous things that Apple could do to increase the appeal of the HomePod, including opening it up to Pandora and rival services, the first thing it needs to do is improve Siri's image. Neither Google Home nor Amazon Echo are significantly better than Siri in handling voice tasks. What they do have, however, is more mystique and fewer jaded users. That jading will come, but not until after customers have bought a Home or Echo.

Also see

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Image: Tyler Lizenby/CNET

About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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