Just a heads up that I’ll be in Seattle part of this week at the GeekWire Cloud Tech Summit. This will almost certainly affect the time you receive these emails Tuesday through Thursday.
Apple announced its HomePod
smart speaker / home assistant on Monday, so all parties in the battle to own the smart home are now present and accounted for. And because Apple is making its entrance in typical Apple fashion (i.e., expensive—$349—and aesthetically pleasing), HomePod’s success relative to the Amazon Echo and Google Home devices could teach us a whole lot about what consumers really value when it comes to artificial intelligence. (Also digital platforms.)
I’m gonna resist the urge to do too deep an analysis right now, because HomePod doesn’t come out until December and I assume there will be lots of activity between now and then. Apple, Amazon and Google should all be racing to improve their speech recognition models, add new features, bring on new partners and (I assume in the case of Amazon, at least) adjust their pricing. You can rest assured the Amazon-Sonos integration will be complete by then, if Amazon doesn’t just buy Sonos outright in the name of PR and greater market penetration.
Aside from the market dynamics, however, the introduction of HomePod could also illustrate just how much consumers care (or don’t care) about superior AI technology. If we were to break things down as they stand right now, I think it would look roughly like this:
Apple: Expensive product; dominant mobile platform; good, if limited, AI assistant with Siri; lots of data around music/media content and voice queries.
Amazon: Relatively inexpensive products; first-mover advantage; good, if limited, AI assistant with Alexa; lots of data on shopping and voice queries, and some on media content.
Google: Moderately priced product; broad mobile platform; superior AI all around; lots of data on everything but shopping.
Microsoft: Microsoft has good AI, but is not selling its own home-automation products yet, and I don’t suspect “Cortana-powered” will prove too big a draw to third-party products.
Before HomePod came along, Amazon and Google were battling have the best the consumer-developer-cloud flywheel
, where more products sold means more developers means more money spent on cloud infrastructure. To some degree, it was a fight between a ruthless competitor willing to accept thin margins in the name of moving units, and the company now synonymous with cutting-edge AI. In some circles, both companies have reputations as being particularly greedy for consumer data.
Apple and HomePod have access to less data and, presumably, bringer a narrower range of knowledge than does Google Home. HomePod presently costs twice as much as the full-size Amazon Echo, and several times as much as the Echo Dot. However, HomePod brings with it Apple’s dominant iOS platform, reputation for stellar product design, and a strong focus on playing music (a space where Apple currently dominates Amazon and Google).
If HomePod catches on like the iPod, iPhone and iPad before it, we could take that as a referendum on the importance having the best models in the smart home: If a product is otherwise superior or masters the actual use case people care about (or maybe just is made by Apple), good enough is good enough. The silver lining for Amazon and Google is that their clouds will likely be hosting the backends for many third-party HomePod apps.
On the other hand, if HomePod struggles because Siri isn’t living up to her end of the bargain, Amazon and Google will never let consumers, or Apple, forget it. And they’ll be laughing all the way to the bank as their flywheels remain spinning at full speed.
For what it’s worth, I have several Sonos speakers, one Echo, one Echo Dot, and an Echo Show on pre-order. I made my bet with Sonos and then the original Echo before Google Home was announced (long before, in the case of Sonos), and assuming the Echo-Sonos integration works nicely, I plan stick with it because wireless music is a big deal in my house and my money is spent.
However, I do sometimes yearn for the superior voice-search capabilities of Google Home, and while I’m not a big iOS fan, I do respect Apple products. I don’t know what it would take to woo me away from Amazon, but I’ll know it when I see it.