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In (partial) defense of Apple’s HomePod…

Apple’s HomePod is being hailed as the best speaker among the current smart speaker cohort, which includes Google Home, Amazon Echo, Alexa-enabled Sonos and others. But it’s also being heavily criticized for several flaws.

The consensus of the criticism basically focuses on two or three main areas:

  • It doesn’t natively support music services other than Apple Music (and iTunes Match).
  • Siri isn’t as “good” as Alexa or Google Home (and there are no “skills”).
  • It won’t work with Android devices (or as a conventional bluetooth speaker).

I own multiple Echo devices (Show, Dots, original Echo), two Google Home devices and a Home Mini. I don’t own the Google Max or the Cortana Harman Kardon speakers. I’ve placed the HomePod right beside Google Home and a Ninety7-enhanced Echo Dot in my living room.

In terms of sound quality, I agree: it’s not close. It’s hard to go back to listening to music on the other devices after the HomePod, although one could argue whether HomePod has too much bass (believe it or not). Again, I haven’t heard the Home Max.

But Apple’s decision not to support Spotify or Pandora natively on the device is regrettable and somewhat coercive. It’s a poor decision that the company hopefully will change later. You can, however, stream music from either of those services through your phone and AirPlay. I’ve been using Pandora, and it works perfectly well.

But after having read multiple criticisms of Siri’s capabilities and functionality, I was very pleasantly surprised by its performance. Siri isn’t integrated with calendaring, which is a disappointment. But that could change with a software update.

It also isn’t quite as good as Google for answering general knowledge questions. But it was much closer and a much better performer than one might imagine from all the criticism. Local recommendations were a major weakness, although nobody did a great job.

Side by side, I asked the Google Assistant, Alexa and HomePod/Siri lots of questions. Among them:

  • How long would it take me to get into San Francisco right now?
  • What’s the weather tomorrow?
  • What’s healthier: spinach or kale?
  • Set timer.
  • What’s the best Mexican restaurant near me?
  • How far is Earth from Mars?
  • Who was the 44th president?
  • Who discovered America?
  • Convert euros to dollars.
  • What’s the best-selling rock album of all time?
  • Who was Shakespeare?
  • What does dilly dilly mean?
  • What’s the oldest fast-food restaurant in the US?
  • Define (multiple words).
  • Did the Golden State Warriors win their last game?

Overall, as mentioned, Siri didn’t do quite as well as Google Home. But it did about as well as Alexa. There were isolated questions Google Home fumbled, but it got the most correct. Siri and Alexa were a couple of questions behind, at parity.

However, one might have expected Siri to underperform the others; the opposite was true. In addition, Siri is more responsive than Google Home or Echo/Alexa when music is playing loudly. I never had to say “Hey Siri” multiple times to get its attention, as I sometimes have to with the others.

The fact that HomePod doesn’t connect to third-party apps (other than through HomeKit) is not a big deal, in my view. There are two major problems with Alexa skills right now: The vast majority are worthless, and they’re difficult to discover.

I suspect that Apple will ultimately enable third-party apps on HomePod, as it has with iMessage, Maps and Siri on the phone. We can probably also expect that Siri’s full capabilities (e.g., calendaring) will come to HomePod. And Apple should make HomePod accessible to Android users.

Given the negative (or ambivalent) coverage and its relatively high price ($349), it’s unlikely that HomePod will gain significant adoption versus its rivals. But price would be much less of an issue if the other complaints were addressed.

About The Author

Greg Sterling is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog, Screenwerk, about connecting the dots between digital media and real-world consumer behavior. He is also VP of Strategy and Insights for the Local Search Association. Follow him on Twitter or find him at Google+.

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