It’s easy to dunk on Apple’s HomePod speaker. For one, it costs $300. Currently, it doesn’t support third-party music services (though that’s supposedly on the way). HomeKit is a mixed bag when it comes to controlling a smart home, and for the price, the Apple TV is arguably the smarter choice for a HomeKit hub. But really, the No. 1 reason I’ve banished my HomePod to the bathroom is Siri.
I bring this up because there are rumors that at next week’s Apple event, we could very well see a cheaper, smaller HomePod. That, and the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee also dropped a big ole report on Big Tech yesterday, a section of which dives into the digital assistant market share.
You’d think a more affordable HomePod mini would be a good thing. Cram that good bass into a smaller, cheaper form factor and bada bing, bada boom: Look out Google and Amazon. Except the House subcommittee’s report highlights a glaring error with that logic. “According to one consulting firm, of the 1.1 billion shipments of virtual assistants in 2019, Apple’s Siri (35%) has the highest market share globally, followed by Google Assistant (9%) and Amazon Alexa (4%),” the report outlines. It then goes on to clarify that when it comes to smart speakers in the U.S. market, Amazon leads at 61.1%, followed by Google at 23.8%. Apple? A measly 2.7%.
Siri might dominate digital assistant hardware shipments, but the vast majority of those can probably be attributed to the iPhone. You can bet that with just a 2.7% domestic market share, the HomePod is not doin’ it for most people who’ve invested any time in building a smart home.
It’d be tempting to say that’s because of the HomePod’s price. Why plop down $300 (or $350 when it launched) for a smart speaker when the Nest Mini and Echo Dot are $50 retail and frequently on sale? In Google’s case, it sometimes feels like the company is practically throwing Nest Minis at you. And yeah, the price definitely plays a factor. However, my theory, and hear me out, is that the real reason the HomePod is the rare Apple flop is because you don’t buy a smart speaker for the sound. You buy it for the assistant, and Siri just isn’t a great assistant. (And if you were going to buy a smart speaker for the sound, there’s the $200 Sonos One, which has AirPlay 2 and supports both Alexa and Google Assistant.)
Siri is dumber than a bag of rocks, but it’s especially bad on the HomePod. Once, while conversing with my partner about Elvis and Graceland, Siri—via the HomePod—butted in to play “Jolene” by Dolly Parton. Great song. Sounded great on the HomePod, too. But still, totally random, unasked for, and left me utterly baffled. For whatever reason, Siri has played numerous country songs on the HomePod to interrupt random conversations. It’s funny, until your ears are bleeding because Siri started playing Toby Keith even though you did not mention his name or Siri once. I’ve asked Siri to set timers on the HomePod. It can do that. But a few times, I’ve had to run from the kitchen, screaming for it to stop ringing, my hands covered in cake batter or meat juice, and smack the control panel with my elbow to get the alarm to shut up. Asking Siri to turn my Hue lights on and off works pretty well on my iPhone. For whatever reason, it rarely works via the HomePod. I asked it to play white noise, and it played horrible static for a second and then stopped. I asked for a bedtime story and it told me about aluminum alloys for about 30 seconds before asking me snarkily if I was asleep yet. I was not, and if I had kids, I’d be annoyed, because that’s not what I intended. I’ll give Siri credit, though: The assistant gives me extremely detailed, high-fidelity weather reports while I shower. It’s not that it never works. It’s just annoyingly inconsistent. And that is why our beautiful HomePod is wasting away atop my toilet tank.
There’s a whole bunch of things I can do with Google Assistant and Alexa that Siri on the HomePod simply cannot. I can buy stuff, add things to my shopping carts, and control just about any IoT device in my house with a simple command using speakers from Apple’s rivals. There are way more third-party service integrations. If you peep at Siri’s developer page, you can see that not every function is available on the HomePod.
Even the ones that are don’t always work as I’d want. For instance, technically I should be able to use Siri to add milk to my grocery list in Todoist, an action that is supposedly supported on HomePod. When I tried it out on the HomePod, Siri said: “Who dis?” Then asked me to open the Home app and retrain the assistant to recognize my voice.
Excuse me: Who do you think set you up to begin with?!? Who do you think you’ve been talking to every day?!? How dare. You’re asking me to go to the Home app, talk to you for a few minutes, and then maybe you’ll understand how to do this one, very simple task that my other digital assistants have zero problems doing? Please, I need a nap.
Then there’s HomeKit, the protocol that Apple uses, which is fine, but it isn’t worth the hassle of switching over everything in an already established smart home. God forbid you buy a smart device and then lose the little booklet with the HomeKit QR code. Sometimes it’s no big because you can easily find the serial number, but once, an old roomie left me her WeMo plug when she moved out. She hadn’t kept the booklet and the serial number was nowhere on the device itself. That left me with a plug that was completely dead to Siri but still workable with Alexa and Google Assistant. That one instance killed my nascent attempt at switching to HomeKit, as I had plenty of other gadgets that I’d long lost the booklets for.
For a smart speaker to be successful, your digital assistant needs to be reliable, competent, and play well within a wide ecosystem of devices. You can live with a cheap speaker with bad sound, so long as the assistant does what you need. That said, there are also so many options right now that shelling out for an expensive speaker with a dumb assistant is unnecessary. The new Nest Audio? $100, sounds great, and comes with a competent assistant. Love my Google Nest Hub, which sounds like crap but rarely fails at controlling my smart home. The Amazon Echo Spot in my kitchen? Tiny, sounds terrible, but was cheap on sale and has a competent assistant. When I want to listen to music on something that doesn’t sound like garbage, I have the Sonos Move, which is not only portable but supports Bluetooth and also has Google Assistant/Alexa on it. If I really wanted total freedom for music listening regardless of streaming service, I’d do just as well with a nice, affordable, portable Bluetooth speakers. Simply put, I do not need to put up with a subpar digital assistant to get what I want.
I’m sure the HomePod mini will be cute and sound great. It might even be affordable. But until Apple figures out how to turn Siri into something capable of managing a smart home, my HomePod will just have to live alone in its bathroom jail.