If you were looking for a sign that voice is becoming a big deal in tech, here it is: A recent report from NPR and Edison Research suggests that 39 million Americans now own a smart speaker. Even by the very rapid standards of the digital era, that signals a remarkable shift for such a new category.
But as households across the world now become comfortable talking out loud to Amazon's Alexa and Google's Assistant, there is a conspicuous absence in the market: Apple. Though the ubiquitous tech giant is rarely at the bleeding edge, preferring instead to improve upon flawed first-generation products, now that smart speakers are clearly mainstream, Apple is officially late to the game. Its own entry, the HomePod speaker, was announced in June of last year, but is only making its long-delayed debut next month. On top of its tardy arrival, the HomePod is missing a handful of promised features, prompting even ardent Apple supporters to label this a serious misstep on behalf of Apple.
When a company like Apple continues to rake in billions of dollars, it can seem churlish to nitpick occasional fumbles like the HomePod launch. But this seems like more than just a hiccup. I would even venture to say that Apple simply doesn't grasp that voice is the next big tech platform — and the company's insistent focus on hardware over software may be to blame.
The HomePod will no doubt be impressive in its own way. As industry analyst Horace Dediu has argued, Apple is deliberately positioning the HomePod as being primarily focused on music, with an emphasis on superior sound quality. But that positioning is also a way to lower expectations. Sure, Amazon's Echo products may not sound as good as the HomePod, but they can do a whole lot more, thanks to thousands of "skills" — essentially apps that let users do everything, from ordering an Uber or listening to the radio to getting the news or even playing games. That the HomePod can't do this stuff puts it at a severe disadvantage.
In other words, Amazon understands that voice is a new ecosystem on which companies can build services and products. Amazon's Alexa is a platform, while Apple's HomePod is merely a standalone product.
Of all companies, Apple should understand the difference between product and platform. The iPod and iTunes, and then the iPhone and App Store, were each so revolutionary because the products themselves became entry points into a broader ecosystem. You didn't buy an iPhone simply because of its screen or design; you bought it because of Instagram, Candy Crush, Seamless, and the millions of other apps it let you use.
But Apple has positioned the HomePod as something meant to augment its existing products — a helper to make using your iPhone, Mac, or Apple Watch easier to use. Sure, Siri can tie into apps, letting you launch Spotify or post to Facebook with your voice. But for a number of the HomePod's voice functions, you have to actively unlock your phone instead of simply being able to use your voice.
That may seem like a small disparity, but there is a material difference between a smart speaker with a dedicated voice platform and one in which voice is merely an ancillary function. The former is able to seamlessly become part of a person's daily routine, and that's huge.
So why is Apple, the world's biggest, most successful tech company, failing to lead in this category? In part, this is about capability: When it comes to machine learning and artificial intelligence, Apple is playing catchup. Siri's lackluster performance compared to its rivals is a sign that Apple either hasn't dedicated enough resources to voice control, or has yet to reap the benefits of its investments there.
More importantly, though, it's become clear Siri is there to support the company's cash cow, the iPhone, rather than become a separate pillar. In missing the chance to produce another successful ecosystem, Apple has let Amazon and Google gain an increasing stranglehold on a whole new tech category. That seems like a clear mistake.