We've come a long way since those days when Steve Jobs strolled out on the stage, wearing his signature black shirt and jeans, holding the future in his hand. That's how we met the devices that changed our lives – iPod, iPhone, and iPad all were introduced this way.
But all that's in the innovation rear-view mirror. First of all, these events are typically in September, but this year was pushed to yesterday due to supply change problems. Of course, holiday shopping is going to be whacked this year, so it stands to reason even Apple's fall announcement has been disrupted.
Of course, the event is virtual now. Not a lot of flash or “oh wow.” There was no auditorium filled with cheering Apple fans boys and girls, cheering on Apple's innovation. And no Steve Jobs, of course.
But yesterday, Apple pressed on, introducing its new 5G iPhone 12, a MagSafe wireless charging system, and colorful Beats Flex wireless headphones (for just $50).
And their new, breakthrough device is an affordable smart speaker – the new HomePod mini. It retails for $99 and is available early next month.
Now no one would criticize you if you're thinking, “It's about time.” Or even, “What took so long?”
Or is it really “breakthrough?”
Whether you know it or not, Apple has had an entrant in the smart speaker field for three years – the HomePod. It sells for a hefty $300, has great sound, doesn't include Spotify, and by all estimates, has been a total stiff.
During this same period, Amazon and Google have extended their leads in the all-important smart speaker horse race.
Is there room for another player?
Apple thinks so, and thus, the HomePod Mini is certainly more competitively priced. It has cool features – Siri recognizes the voices of the various people who live (or work) with you. CNET says it resembles a restaurant table candle.
It is very round – yes, like an apple.
The Mini's main attraction – aside from its reasonable price – is to pair it with all your other Apple stuff – your iPhone, your Watch, your Mac, your Apple TV.
Like its competitors, the HomePod Mini can control your lights and handle other at-home tasks. The feature that jumped out at me is that two Minis in the same room can be configured to play your favorite audio in stereo.
(Of course, you can do all these tasks with your Alexa or Google Home devices, begging the question whether there's truly a need for this advice at this time.)
Good news for radio. HomePod Mini plays radio streams, from sources that include iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Radio.com. So, if your station's audio is available on those apps, you're in luck. That is unless your station handle is Jack, Mix, Eagle, Hot, Alt, or The Fan, in which case the device might retrieve a station on Prince Edward Island instead of yours.
No doubt about it, the Apple HomePod Mini looks to be a cool device that might have been a real player in 2015. But in the light of today, is it different enough from what Amazon and Google have been offering the last several year to lure consumers to “switch horses” to Apple? Apparently, that's their bet.
But the fact is, Amazon and Google have lapped the field. Here in the U.S., Alexa maintains a huge lead, while Google is hustling for the runner-up position. (In other countries, it is Google in the pole position.) Apple is hoping to wedge itself into the competitive arena where Amazon and Google rule – at home, at work, and yes, in cars. It is clearly playing from behind.
Note how Google is picking up share. And that of smart speaker owners, nearly one in ten now has both an Amazon and a Google device. As for the original HomePod, it has barely gotten out of the starting gate.
Apple's prowess at product design and marketing is undeniable. Their brand is impeccable. They were made to dominate this space. But right now, they're not even in the money.
And at first glance, the HomePod Mini has a nice look and probably sounds great. But similar to being up against two strong morning shows that have established loyal audiences, do consumers really need another smart speaker in their lives?
And of those who still don't own one of these devices (still a solid majority of consumers), how many have been waiting in the grandstands for Apple to finally introduce a competitively priced, full-featured product?
(FWIW our research indicates most smart speaker holdouts have rejected buying one of these devices not because of price or need, but due to privacy concerns. Many will tell you they don't want “a device in my home listening to my conversations.” Apple's new entry is a longshot to be sure, but might have had a chance to beat the long odds with unique, proprietary privacy features on HomePod Mini.)
Long before we knew Alexa, many of us were chatting with Siri. But Apple's inability to design and produce a unique, competitive, affordable product in a timely basis puts the company in a position of playing from behind. And it's puzzling, given the company's innovative Jobsian DNA.
At a time when more than four in ten consumers just told us in our COVID 3 study they won't spend as much money on gifts this holiday season as they did last year, Apple has an uphill battle on its hands. Gen Zs and Millennials – the generations most likely to take a shot on a new tech gadget – are the groups most likely to spend less this year.
Will HomePod Mini be on your “wish list” this year?
Thanks to Reid Jacobs.
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