The Smart Speaker Market IS the Speaker Market (or why no one buys iPods anymore)

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 2 min read

One of the defenses I’ve seen for the HomePod’s lack of certain voice features that Alexa and Google Assistant alreayd have is that these are distinct product categories: it is perfectly reasonable to expect someone to own a HomePod for music and an Amazon Echo for smart speaker stuff. Or at least, that’s the argument.

Let’s rewind to 2007 and look at a similar argument made by some at the time. The iPod was doing incredibly well (2007-2009 was the best stretch the iPod ever had in terms of sales) and there were arguments that smartphones could not totally replace your iPod due to things like battery life being worse and storage being much smaller than a dedicated music player would allow1. Choose the phone you like the best for phone calls and test messages, and choose the music player you like best based on the music store you use to buy music.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that MP3 plays would go all but extinct, and the smartphone is primary (if not only) way people listen to music anymore. Yes, smartphones were technically a different category than MP3 players, but it didn’t take long for every smartphone to be a better music player than the MP3 players of old. Most people agreed back then that MP3 players would be replaced by phones, but there were vocal minorities that disagreed.

Fast forward to 2018 and you see the same argument being floated about the HomePod. “It doesn’t matter what other smart assistant speakers do because they’re a different category.” But when we see Sonos, Harman Karmon, KitSound, UE, LG, and Bose building in Alexa and Google Assistant into their speakers, it’s looking more and more like the “dumb” speaker is going the way of the iPod. You’re not going to see many mainstream speakers released in the future that don’t have an assistant built into them. It’s table stakes at this point.

What kills me about the “you should buy a HomePod and a separate smart speaker” is that HomePod does most of what these other smart speakers do via their smart assistants. If I’m critical about Siri’s lack of multiple voice recognition (and by extension, security-based features related to this), it’s because there are speakers that also sound great and have multiple voice recognition as well.

The argument may be framed as “Apple could make a $350 good speaker or a $35 shitty speaker,” but that’s not a fair argument. There are plenty of smart speakers out there at different price points, ranging from terrible to great audio quality. Even if you want a smart speaker that sounds good, you have a number of options in front of you: HomePod is not some sort of unicorn that is beyond compare.

I say all this as a happy HomePod owner. I have had it for a few days and really like it, but this thing absolutely has some weaknesses and I don’t plan on holding back because it is somehow beyond reproach.

  1. The soon-to-be-renamed-to iPod Classic had 80GB of storage on the day the iPhone released in 2007. If local storage was still a concern, my 2017 iPhone 8 would still be a disappointment at 64GB!