Apple HomePod smart speaker can beat Alexa when these 6 things are right:

 

Apple HomePod
Apple HomePod

1.Drop Price:

Apple has one smart speaker, the pricey $349 HomePod. It should introduce an entry-level alternative.

Amazon’s speakers range in price from the $50 Echo Dot to the $230 Echo Show; Google’s speakers range from the $50 Home Mini to the $399 Home Max.

Apple said it wasn’t trying to compete directly with devices like the Echo Dot or the Home Mini when the HomePod first hit stores — it was prioritizing sound quality over smart home functionality.

The tech giant bet that folks would pay more for the HomePod’s superior speaker. But people are largely buying lower-priced Amazon and Google smart speakers over the pricier Echo Show or the Home Max, according to a Voicebot report.

If the Home Max really only captured 0.6 percent of the 2017 market share, as Voicebot claims, where does that leave the similarly high-end HomePod? A Bloomberg report — perhaps unsurprisingly — says HomePod sales are slow too.

There is a rumor Apple is developing a cheaper HomePod speaker, but it hasn’t been confirmed.

2.Improve Siri

Siri needs a pretty significant overhaul to reach the sheer number of features as Alexa and Google Assistant. Here’s what I want to see added:

Voice training — Siri can’t distinguish between voices on the HomePod. Anyone who says “Hey, Siri” will get a response from the speaker.

Calling —  If I ask Siri on the HomePod to call one of my iPhone contacts, the voice AI replies: “I wish I could, but I can’t help you make calls on HomePod.”

Playing music — You can only use Siri voice commands on the HomePod to play Apple-approved music services. For Spotify, YouTube and any other third-party service, you have to use AirPlay 2.

 

Amazon Echo and Apple HomePod speake
Amazon Echo and Apple HomePod speake

Controlling Apple TV — While you can use voice control on the Apple TV remote, you can’t ask Siri on the HomePod to play The Office on Netflix.

Basic questions — Siri’s ability to answer everyday questions is somewhat unreliable. Sometimes the correct response comes immediately, other times a similar question returns this annoying response: “I can’t get the answer to that on HomePod.”

  1. Open up music streaming

You should be able to say, “Hey Siri, play my ‘focus playlist’ on Spotify.” But you can’t.

Disappointingly, you can only use Siri voice commands to play music from Apple-approved streaming services, referenced in the Audio Sources section of this HomePod specs page:

  • Apple Music
  • iTunes Music Purchases
  • iCloud Music Library with an Apple Music or iTunes Match subscription
  • Beats 1 Live Radio
  • Apple Podcasts

Every other service — YouTube, Spotify, Pandora — you have to control manually via AirPlay 2 from the Control Center on your iPhone or iPad (see the screenshot). You can ask Siri to stop or resume a song streaming from a third-party service (I got this to work on YouTube), but you can’t say, “Hey Siri, play ‘Yulunga (Spirit Dance)’ by Dead Can Dance on YouTube.”

Alexa and Google Assistant work with a wide range of third-party music services. Here’s more details on supported music services for Siri (on the HomePod), Alexa (on Echo speakers) and Google Assistant (on Home speakers).

  1. Add device partners

Apple needs more smart home integrations. Period.

Siri currently has way fewer than either Alexa or Google Assistant. Follow the links below to see what products work with Apple, Amazon and Google smart speakers:

  • What works with Siri?
  • What works for Amazon Alexa?
  • What works for Google Assistant?

Apple previously required a specific piece of hardware called an MFi chip to be installed in third-party devices for them to work with its smart home platform HomeKit. It meant manufacturers had to release next-gen versions of their existing products just to make them compatible. Amazon and Google took a more open approach to the smart home from the beginning, giving them more opportunities to grow their respective platforms.

Apple no longer has that hardware requirement, so it’s easier for devices partners to support HomeKit now. Hopefully, that will spur more choice for Apple-loyal smart home enthusiasts.

5.Introduce third-party skills

Apple should allow outside developers to create voice commands for Siri.

Amazon and Google make it much easier for third parties to create content for Alexa and Google Assistant than Apple does for Siri. This is one of the main reasons — if not the main reason — Alexa, in particular, has thousands of available skills. Some of the skills tie in directly to smart home control — things like turning on lights or adjusting a thermostat. Other skills are trivia games, workout routines, and meditation exercises.

There are pros and cons to opening a platform up to developers. If anyone can create an Alexa skill, they aren’t as closely regulated and sometimes come with clunky invocation words like, “Alexa, ask Geneva when the dishwasher will be finished.”

It also means that some of the skills aren’t particularly good. I tested out all of the Alexa workout skills and of the 30-plus options, only six actually offered useful guided routines.

Apple avoids the pitfalls of awkward phrasing and poor quality integrations simply by not allowing the possibility. But the company is also missing opportunities to broaden Siri’s scope.

6.The outlook

Apple needs to accomplish all of these things to be taken as seriously in the smart home as Amazon and Google. Right now the HomePod is a great speaker with built-in Siri voice functionality. Adding new devices and features, lowering hardware prices, making Siri better and introducing more partnerships should give Apple a better chance of staying competitive.

AirPlay 2 takes Apple part of the way, but it isn’t enough to get every shopper to buy a HomePod over an Alexa or Google Assistant speaker.