In a four-way race to own the smart home, Ben Thompson puts Apple in third place.
Thompson weighs the strengths and weaknesses of four contenders—Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook—in The Battle for the Home, posted Wednesday on Stratechery.
Here’s his take on the HomePod:
The HomePod is exactly what you would expect from Apple: the best hardware at the highest price. The sound is excellent and, naturally, even better if you buy two. The HomePod is also — again, as you would expect from Apple — locked into the Apple ecosystem; this is from one perspective a weakness, but this is the Strength section, and the reality is that people are more committed to their iPhones — and thus Apple’s ecosystem — than they are to home speakers, meaning that for many customers this limitation is a strength.
Along those lines, Apple is clearly the most attractive option from a privacy perspective: the company doesn’t sell ads, has made privacy a public priority, and is thus the only choice for those nervous about having an Internet-connected microphone in their house.
Apple, even more than Google, seemed blinded by its smartphone success. This isn’t a surprise: the ultimate point of Android was to be a conduit to Google’s services; it follows, then, that if home devices are about services, that Google would be more attuned to the opportunity (and the threat). Apple, on the other hand, is and always will be a product company; the company offers services to help sell its hardware, not the other way around, and it follows that the company would be heavily incentivized to insist that the iPhone and Apple Watch, which both offered attractive hardware margins and were differentiated by the integration of hardware and software, were better home devices.
That, furthermore, explains Apple’s biggest weakness: the relative performance of Siri as compared to Alexa or Google Assistant. The problem isn’t a matter of trivia, but rather speed and reliability. Siri is consistently slower and more likely to make mistakes in transcription than either Alexa or Google Assistant (and, for the record, more likely to fail trivia questions as well). As always, Apple is the most potent example of how strengths equal weaknesses: just as it was inevitable that a services company like Amazon would be poor at product, a truly extraordinary product company like Apple will face fundamental challenges in services.