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HomePod’s Priorities

More hour-long hands-on experiences with HomePod are rolling out. Here’s Brian Heater, writing at TechCrunch:

As advertised, the thing sounds great. There’s little question here that the HomePod is a speaker first, smart second, bucking the trend of the earliest Echo and Google Home devices. Apple’s engineers were able to get a lot of rich and full sound out of that little footprint. The speaker is particularly adept as isolating vocals and maintaining often muddled aural aspects, like background singers and audience sounds in live recordings.

The difference between HomePod and Amazon Echo isn’t that they’re in different product categories. They’re in the same category. No one other than a gadget reviewer is going to put both a HomePod and Echo in their kitchen. They’re going to have one. It is, most certainly, a competition.

The difference is in the priorities behind the devices. All of them are meant to be audio players and useful voice-driven assistants for information, communication, and smart home control. They’re intended to be adopted fairly widely. But it makes a huge difference what order those priorities are in. HomePod’s first priority is clearly audio quality. That’s why it costs $350. Amazon has placed a higher priority on price, which is one reason why Echo doesn’t sound great.

A lot of the knee-jerk “Apple has finally lost its goddamn collective mind if they think people are going to spend $350 on a HomePod that costs three times as much as and has far fewer features than an Amazon Echo and they’re only banging the drum about sound quality because Siri has so many problems” reaction is entirely from the perspective of people who agree with Amazon’s priorities regarding Alexa products. Google seems to be in more of a middle ground, offering both an Echo-ish-priced Google Home at $130 and a HomePod-ish-priced $400 Home Max (which, judging from initial reports, clearly does not sound as good as HomePod).

Writing at Medium, I think Lance Ulanoff’s headline starts the piece off on the wrong foot: “Up Close With Apple HomePod, Siri’s Expensive New Home”. If the HomePod’s primary purpose is to serve as a home for Siri, then yes, it’s expensive. I imagine that is how Amazon’s Echo devices came to be: Amazon wanted a way to get Alexa into as many people’s homes as they could. Alexa came first, the hardware to put it in came second. With HomePod I think it’s very clear that Apple started with the question of how to create a high-quality speaker for music playback. Using Siri as the primary interface was simply a design decision. But if HomePod’s primary purpose is to sound better than products like Google Home Max and Sonos One, it is not expensive.

If you’re not interested in higher-end audio quality or are mostly interested in the number of assistant features you can add to such a device, HomePod clearly isn’t for you. I don’t think that means it’s for no one, though. Serenity Caldwell’s first look for iMore is the best I’ve read so far, because it’s written from the perspective of judging it for what it is, not what its competitors are.