Apple has proven once again that it’s still the most beautiful blowhard in electronics, showing up late to the party, and then dominating a discussion that’s long underway. In this case, the company’s new HomePod smart speaker blustered its way into a category that Amazon has struggled to define for over a year. Even if you didn’t follow Apple’s WWDC presentation as it happened on June 5, you probably heard about the company’s entry into smart speakers. During last night’s prime-time breaking news coverage on CNN, for example, a capsule description of the HomePod — including a stat about its height (seven inches) — came marching across the ticker at the bottom of the screen. Imagine the gnashing of teeth at Amazon, whose Alexa voice-control platform has gradually educated consumers about the concept of commanding your home with your voice, and which only became a bona fide household name after a prolonged marketing blitz, including a speaking role on the most recent season of the buzzy TV series Mr. Robot. Now here comes Apple’s version, enjoying the sort of free advertising that only Cupertino’s products can. The HomePod itself is breaking news, despite the fact that it isn’t creating a new category, or even offering true breakthrough features like those of Amazon and Google’s smart speakers.
Whether the HomePod can outperform its competition is an open question, and we look forward to throwing it into the growing battle royale of voice-controlled speakers. But even if it turns out to be a bust, the HomePod has already made an outsize impact on a category that needs all the help it can get. We’re referring to the smart home, which is equal parts thrilling in its potential, and crushing in its past disappointments.
If you’ve used smart-home gear, you know how dumb it often is. Individual products like Nest’s thermostats and Schlage’s smart locks have real utility, but they’re fussy, isolated devices, usually requiring that you dive into a specific app to fully control each gadget. There have been attempts to centralize control of these various products, such as Wink’s platform, but most still ask you to pull out a smartphone and tap through options to activate or program different gear. The smartphone-as-home-hub is an awkward, stop-gap solution that doesn’t mesh well with large households (where kids, for example, aren’t allowed to paw at their parents’ phones). More importantly, fiddling with a smartphone doesn’t deliver on the sci-fi premise of the smart home.
Voice control, on the other hand, is sci-fi as hell. There are few tech experiences right now that are as satisfying as asking Alexa or Google (via its Google Home speaker) to dim the lights and lock the front door, and having those devices leap into action. Voice commands solve the biggest problem with smart home, which is its reliance on fractured, unwieldy interfaces. They democratize and simplify smart-home control, so no one is asking permission to use someone else’s phone, or fishing for one device in order to control another. They’re a legitimate game-changer, opening the door to more kinds of gear, and scenarios that are universally appealing. Who wouldn’t want to be able to shamble out of bed in the morning and order the entire house around — turning on the heat, starting the coffee brewing, getting weather and traffic updates — without squinting at a sequence of apps or on-screen menus? And as familiar as that sounds, voice control should enable classes of smart-home devices, and solutions that don’t yet exist, whose complexity is tucked away behind an interface that couldn’t be more intuitive.
That’s the case for smart-home voice control, and it’s one that Amazon has been making ever since its Echo speaker debuted. But the HomePod, simply by existing, closes the loop that Amazon first opened. It normalizes the concept of voice commands for smart-home gear, as well as the notion that you don’t need a phone or tablet to control those products. (Its Siri-controlled interface will be compatible with Apple’s HomeKit ecosystem.) That it’s fashionably late to the category is actually an asset. The iPod, iPhone, and iPad all showed up long after earlier pioneers, and wound up defining — and expanding — the way we consume and control data. For the sake of smart-home tech, here’s hoping the HomePod’s arrival is just as infuriating, and undeniable.