Apple wasn’t particularly subtle back in June when it debuted its new wireless speaker with digital assistant, dubbed the HomePod. A press release screamed “HomePod reinvents music in the home.” This despite literally decades of speaker innovation by other players, from Sonos to Bose, not to mention Amazon’s groundbreaking voice-controlled Alexa lineup. And early doubts arose after Apple carefully showed off only limited features of the HomePod, wouldn’t let journalists touch it, and said it wouldn’t go on sale until December.
Well, strike that. Apple said Friday that the HomePod would miss the 2017 holiday shopping season and won’t be available until “early 2018.”
In at least one regard, the delay is admirable. Too many companies this year have rushed products to market only for consumers to uncover unfinished or missing features or serious bugs. Tech reviewer Jared Newman went so far as to declare 2017 the “Year of the Flawed Flagship Phone.” That Apple had a critically important product in a market where it seriously lags behind the competition and decided not to release an unfinished device seems to demonstrate serious grit from Tim Cook and his team.
On the other hand, Apple might be lagging because its approach to integrating the Siri digital assistant service is lagging. It’s a long running debate: is Apple’s device-first, cloud-second approach to artificial intelligence a brilliant and differentiating maneuver or simply a weak attempt to keep up constrained by the company’s larger business aims that prioritize hardware over software and services? The HomePod delay is certain to fuel the side of the skeptics.
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One study found that Apple lagged Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon (AMZN) in patents related to AI granted from 2009 through 2016. Apple received only 15 patents during the period, while Microsoft (MSFT) topped the group with 200 and Google (GOOGL) was second with 156. Apple’s competitors are fueling their AI and machine learning system with tons of data from customers that has been uploaded and processed in cloud data centers. Critics of Apple’s approach say its emphasis on customer privacy and local device computing over cloud computing hampers its ability to keep up.
Apple (AAPL) has taken pains to rebut the idea that its AI efforts are falling behind. The company has been allowing its researchers to publish papers, speak at conferences, and generally get the word out more about how well it’s doing in the field. Its first published paper last year on teaching software to recognize objects won the award for best paper at the 2017 Conference on Computer Vision & Pattern Recognition.
But Apple is definitely lagging in the openness of its AI-powered assistant, and that makes for much more limited functionality in its products. Amazon has allowed developers to add functions to Alexa from the start and now claims more then 25,000 available add-on skills. Google has also created a development kit for outside programmers to build on top of its assistant. But Apple has kept Siri more locked down, making available just nine functions, including text messaging and ride booking, to developers via the HomePod and Siri voice interface.
Another challenge for Apple in catching up to the rest of the field is that the rest of the field keeps moving ahead. Since Apple debuted the HomePod at its Worldwide Developers Conference in June, not only have Amazon and Google introduced updated, more capable, and better sounding models, but they have partnered with speaker specialists to create more new offerings challenging for the title of best sounding smart speaker.
Sony’s LF-S50G speaker may have a terrible name, but it looks almost exactly like the HomePod and has Google Assistant built-in. Even more audiophile-oriented speaker makers like JBL, Onkyo, Harman Kardon, and Libratone have also announced new products with smart assistants from either Google or Amazon.
That’s left Apple in the unusual position of the market laggard that can’t ever seem to quite catch up, like in the prior decade when Microsoft’s latest, greatest Zune would be announced only to be surpassed by the next version of the iPod. With the state of the art constantly moving ahead, it’s tough on those at the back of the pack.
Still, as Apple and others often point out, it remains early days for digital helpers. None of the current crop are anywhere close to possessing the capabilities, let alone the wit and wisdom, of a human assistant in most areas (even if their language translation abilities are beyond most humans, though). It will likely be a busy, vacation-free holiday period for the HomePod team this year. Apple will need their best efforts if it’s going to catch up.