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Analyst: Apple's HomePod speaker has an 'identity crisis'

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

HomePod, Apple’s entry into the red-hot smart speaker market, is finally available for preorder, and will ship on Feb. 9, after it was first unveiled last June. It enters a market in which Amazon Echo has a wide early lead (70% market share, according to eMarketer) and Google Home is a fast-growing second place.

But there are reasons that HomePod may struggle beyond just its tardiness.

Adam Wright, a senior research analyst with IDC, says that the HomePod “has sort of an identity crisis” in its marketing approach.

“They are leading with the sound hardware as a differentiator, and then saying, ‘Well, it also has Siri in it,’ kind of as an afterthought,” Wright says. “And I think they marketed it that way because they realize they have come to the market pretty late, compared to the tremendous gains Amazon and Google have made at a rapid pace. When HomePod was announced, the sound hardware was more impressive than Amazon’s and Google’s, but Amazon and Google have lifted their game pretty quickly and eroded any kind of edge Apple was trying to gain on the hardware front. I think they need to figure out their story.”

Apple HomePod speaker. (Apple)

Indeed, Apple’s price point, at $349, is much higher than the $100 Echo, $129 Home, $40 Echo Dot, or $49 Home Mini. But Apple is banking on HomePod’s premium sound quality. The problem with that approach is twofold: Amazon Echo and Google Home have beefed up their hardware, closing the gap; and IDC says that most buyers of smart speakers aren’t getting one for sound quality anyway. The appeal is the voice assistant.

“It’s hard to disentangle the speaker from the voice assistant,” Wright says. “These are becoming a new entry point for consumers’ IOT [Internet of Things] journey. Smart assistants are becoming the cornerstone of that ecosystem, and they’re doing that by enhancing the service of consumer devices. But Apple has always made a name for itself by having a closed ecosystem.”

In other words: Amazon and Google have wisely integrated their voice assistants (Alexa and Google Assistant) into all manner of third-party devices, from thermostats to cars to even competitors’ speakers (Alexa is now compatible with Sonos). Siri is not compatible with nearly as many different devices, and that also means Apple is gathering less data about consumer behavior and interactions than Amazon and Google are. “And at the end of the day this is all about data collection,” Wright says.

You might ask: What about people who’ve held off on buying a smart speaker and are Apple devotees? If someone has an iPhone, iPad, and Apple computer, aren’t they likely to choose the HomePod since it has Siri?

Not necessarily. “Consumers are not monogamous in their smart assistants,” says Wright. “They’re interacting with multiple smart assistants over the course of a week. They could use Siri on their iPhone, and then they come home and they’re a Prime member, so they have an Amazon Show and use Alexa on that.” There’s no loyalty in the voice assistant game.

There’s still good news for Apple: This is Apple we’re talking about. The company is notorious for the passion of its devotees, so there are certainly people who will pay up for Apple’s offering because they’re used to buying exclusively Apple devices.

And more good news: the smart speaker market is still “very embryonic or nascent,” Wright says. IDC finds that total sales of voice-assistant speakers doubled in the past year, and expects the aggressive growth rate (more than 60% per year) to last until 2020, when it is likely to taper off because people will begin accessing voice assistants using other devices than speakers.

And eMarketer, which had Amazon’s market share of voice-enabled speakers at 71% for 2017, projects that share shrinking to 68% this year and 64% in 2019 as Google’s share inches up to 25% this year and 28% in 2019.

The market is far from saturated. If Amazon is losing share to Google, there’s room for Apple to push its way in. But perhaps it needs to get a better handle on what exactly it wants HomePod to be.

Daniel Roberts covers tech at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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