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Market Spotlight—Consumer Electronics: Apple Brings Siri Home

Apple gave its biggest fans the first glimpse of its HomePod system
By Leonard Klie - Posted Aug 29, 2017
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At its Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif., in June, Apple gave its biggest fans the first glimpse of its HomePod system, a voice-activated, internet-connected speaker to rival Amazon’s Alexa-enabled Echo and Google Home equipped with the generically named Google Assistant.

The Apple HomePod, which isn’t due to hit stores until December, will tap the same Siri digital assistant that Apple introduced in 2011 and is now used on more than 375 million devices around the world.

When HomePod does hit stores, it will allow users to send messages; get updates on news, sports, and weather; or control devices connected to the Apple HomeKit smart home hub by simply talking to Siri.

Bill Ablondi, director of Strategy Analytics’ Smart Home Strategies research program, says Apple has been rapidly building its HomeKit ecosystem of smart home devices and capabilities for months and managed to sign deals with several key smart home system manufacturers, including Logitech, Lutron, Honeywell, and Leviton. He expects the introduction of a Siri-powered hub to bolster that effort and encourage more brand-name manufactures to join in.

And because it is still a speaker, HomePod will have a lot of music functionality built in as well. When, for example, a user says, “Hey Siri, I like this song,” HomePod and Apple Music together will learn his preferences and share them across devices. Siri can also handle advanced searches within the music library, so users can ask questions like “Hey Siri, who’s the drummer in this?” or create shared “Up Next” queues with everyone in the home.

A six-microphone array with advanced echo cancellation enables Siri to understand a person whether he is near the device or standing across the room, even while loud music is playing. The Siri waveform appears on the top of the device to indicate when Siri is engaged.

The HomePod also offers voice-based security. Only after “Hey Siri” is recognized locally on the device will any information be sent to Apple servers, encrypted, and sent using an anonymous Siri identifier.

“HomePod packs powerful speaker technology, Siri intelligence, and wireless access to the entire Apple Music library into a beautiful speaker that is less than seven inches tall, can rock most any room with distortion-free music, and be a helpful assistant around your home,” said Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, in a statement.

Anticipation is high for HomePod, which is expected to retail for $349.

When it is released, HomePod will also benefit from enhancements that Apple is making to Siri. As part of its iOS11 release, Apple is giving Siri clearer, more human-sounding voices in both female and male versions, along with some new skills to improve its performance.

Siri will offer a new translation feature that will allow users to ask it how to say English phrases in Chinese, French, German, Italian, and Spanish.

Siri will also be able to ask and respond to follow-up questions, meaning the assistant will be able to handle more complex, multitiered interactions. Other innovations include greater support for third-party apps, such as integrations with Evernote and WeChat, and on-device machine learning that will allow Siri to learn user preferences to improve its recommendations.

HomePod—Apple’s first major new product release since its AppleWatch debuted in 2015—will be entering a home connected speaker market that is already quite crowded.

“Amazon’s Echo has a commanding lead currently, and Google’s Home Assistant has the potential to dominate the intelligent home speaker market in the long term, assuming it can capitalize on its clear strengths in search and machine learning,” says Joe Branca, principal industry analyst on the Strategy Analytics’ Smart Home team. “But a Siri speaker will change the market dynamics and pull Apple fans away from the others and make HomeKit their smart home platform of choice.”

Effectively competing against Amazon and Google might not be enough, though.

Microsoft is also developing its own speaker, called Invoke, with Samsung’s Harman Kardon unit; it will use Microsoft’s Cortana digital assistant. That device is due out this fall.

The new Invoke speaker more or less does the same things as the Amazon Echo, Google Home, or Apple HomePod, with one major exception: It can make and receive calls with Microsoft’s Skype. But that might not be enough to differentiate it for long. Amazon just unveiled a version of Echo with a camera, a touch screen display, and video-calling capabilities. Google also recently began previewing hands-free phone calling on the Home device.

Samsung is also reportedly working on a voice-activated speaker powered by its own Bixby digital assistant. And in China, Alibaba and Baidu are both said to have digital smart home speakers in their pipelines as well. Alibaba’s is called Tmall Genie; Baidu’s is based on its DuerOS virtual assistant.

Other companies said to have a stake in the smart home speaker market include Bose, Djingo, Facebook, Gatebox, IBM, iFlytek, Lenovo, LG, LingLong, Mattel, Nuance Communications, Onkyo, Sonos, Sony, SoundHound, Tencent, Vinclu, Xperi, and Yamaha, according to Research and Markets.

Consumer appetite for such devices has surged since Amazon founded the market in late 2015. Strategy Analytics forecasts more than 12 million to be purchased globally in 2017 and more than 164 million to be in use worldwide by 2022.

Fellow market analysis firm Research and Markets has made much more conservative predictions. It estimates the current number of units in use globally at 10 million, rising to approximately 80 million by 2022.

Voice-controlled smart speakers are experiencing significant growth and are playing an important role in the evolution of the voice user interface, Research and Markets concluded in a recent report. Developments in artificial intelligence and natural language processing to enhance voice recognition capabilities have increased the overall demand for voice software platforms embedded in speakers and smart home devices, it said.

The report also notes that a range of innovative voice technologies are creating opportunities across a broad range of use cases, from streaming content and controlling smart home devices to automotive voice recognition and biometrics for authentication purposes.

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