The sound of AI: Everything you need to know about Apple’s HomePod

24 Jan 2018

The new HomePod from Apple. Image: Apple

This is essentially Apple’s latest form factor and the California tech giant’s Echo killer.

After a brief delay, Apple has finally revealed a shipping date for its new speaker product HomePod, the platform that it hopes will seriously rival Amazon’s Echo and Google Voice ecosystem.

Apple revealed that HomePod will be available to order this Friday (26 January) in the US, the UK and Australia, and will be in stores in those countries from 9 February.

What? When is it coming to Europe?

We’ll have to wait and see. Smaller countries are lower down on Apple’s pecking order due to obvious economies of scale and the fact that, being a big business, Apple needs to make a big impact on revenues pretty damn fast to keep shareholders in the style they are accustomed to. HomePod will arrive in France and Germany this spring, Apple promised.

So, is it just an Echo clone?

No, Apple is differentiating HomePod from other voice and artificial intelligence (AI) speaker products in the market by focusing on its obvious edge in music. It works with your Apple Music subscription and promises to deliver stunning audio quality wherever it is placed. Don’t forget, there are about 45m songs on the Apple Music playlist, so there is pretty much something for everyone. Apple is placing a big bet on HomePod, making your whole life more musical by providing access to one of the world’s biggest music libraries in the cloud just by using the sound of your voice.

It’s Siri versus Alexa then?

Yep, for sure. Amazon’s Echo, with voice AI assistant Alexa, has set the standard for home-based voice AI and is a big seller for the company that began in life selling books online. But Apple, the company that began selling computers offline, arguably rivals Amazon in e-commerce (did you ever ponder how many credit cards iTunes/Apple Music has in its repository?) and was one of the first companies to make voice-based AI widespread by putting Siri on the iPhone 4S in 2011.

According to Apple, Siri is now used on more than half a billion devices worldwide and, as a result, has developed a deep knowledge of music – Apple claims that it understands your preferences and tastes. Not only that, Siri on HomePod will enable users to send messages; set a timer or alarm; search and play a podcast; and give you the news, sport, traffic and weather.

Consider HomePod the next physical manifestation of home automation in addition to your iPhone and Apple TV. HomePod is integral to a range of forthcoming HomeKit-enabled smart home accessories.

It will be a hub where all the spokes of the internet of things will concentrate as part of the Apple take on home automation.

What’s inside this thing?

The sound of AI: Everything you need to know about Apple’s HomePod

Image: Apple

Well, it looks quite unthreatening, a kind of all-round speaker thing. It is available in two colours: space grey and white. It stands just 7in tall but apparently packs a bigger punch sonically.

Inside the guts of the machine is an Apple-designed A8 chip and the sonic boom comes courtesy of a high-excursion woofer. Surrounded by seamless mesh fabric, audio is 360 degrees due to a seven-tweeter array. Even when it’s banging out your favourite beats, it is still listening for your voice thanks to a six-microphone array.

The seven beam-forming tweeters provide high-frequency acoustics and there is even directional control, so you can say which way you want the audio to go.

Set-up is understood to be quite easy – you simply hold an iPhone next to the device and it’s ready to start playing music.

You know Siri is engaged when the Siri waveform appears on the display at the top of the device, which can also be controlled by touch.

This is really Apple’s attempt at making an Echo killer, right?

Look, we are all versed in how the world works and, despite Apple’s platitudes about music, you can be damn sure this is about taking on Echo in the home.

HomePod support will make it possible to control hundreds of affiliated home accessories such as thermostats, security systems, intelligent lights – you name it. ‘Hey Siri, raise the shades’ or ‘Siri, turn up the heat’ could become the refrain of the digital home in the decade ahead.

So, there will be HomePod apps?

The sound of AI: Everything you need to know about Apple’s HomePod

Image: Apple

Oh yeah, expect lots of them. Home automation will unleash a similar flood of app creativity from developers just like what accompanied the first apps in 2007. Apple has already cultivated app ties for HomePod with media players such as NPR, CNN, ESPN and others through SiriKit, and it supports third-party messaging apps such as WhatsApp. So, you could update your WhatsApp group by hollering ‘Hey Siri’ from the shower.

Also coming this year is a free update with the ability to play music throughout the house using multi-room audio. Apple has designs on not just selling one of these, it would love to see a HomePod in your kitchen, bedroom, dining room and elsewhere.

That’s not creepy at all, sure it’s not?

Well, the jury is still out on whether these smart devices are always listening to us. They possibly know more about us than we would like, but Apple is taking the same principled stand it took with Apple Pay where it refused to actually hold card details, instead creating a one-time code. In the case of HomePod, only after ‘Hey Siri’ is recognised locally on the device will any information be sent to Apple servers. That information will be encrypted and sent using an anonymous Siri identifier.

Phew, OK. So how much will this thing cost?

Officially, HomePod will set you back $349 in the US. Unofficially, that is roughly £247 in the UK and €282 in the eurozone, but Apple ultimately prices its devices according to each market. Best wait and see.

Will it work with my iPhone?

More than likely. HomePod is compatible with iPhone 5s or later, iPad Pro, iPad Air or later, iPad mini 2 or later, or iPod touch (sixth generation) with iOS 11.2.5 or later.

Cool? So where can I get it?

HomePod will be available in Apple Stores and at select Apple Authorised Resellers, including Best Buy in the US; Argos, Dixons Carphone (Currys PC World), John Lewis, Shop Direct (Very and Littlewoods), EE and Apple Premium Resellers in the UK; and The Good Guys, Harvey Norman, JB Hi-Fi, Myer and Telstra in Australia, beginning Friday 9 February.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years