I’ll miss you, HomePod

I woke up on Saturday to read the Apple news (yes, this is what I do with my Saturday mornings) and saw via TechCrunch, that Apple is discontinuing the original HomePod.

Say what?!

Here’s the statement from Apple:

HomePod mini has been a hit since its debut last fall, offering customers amazing sound, an intelligent assistant, and smart home control all for just $99. We are focusing our efforts on HomePod mini. We are discontinuing the original HomePod, it will continue to be available while supplies last through the Apple Online Store, Apple Retail Stores, and Apple Authorized Resellers. Apple will provide HomePod customers with software updates and service and support through Apple Care.

I honestly couldn’t believe it – many have criticised the HomePod for its high price point, and for Siri’s unpredictable nature, but I absolutely love my HomePod, and everyone I know that owns one seems to have a similar affection for theirs.

Apple rarely discontinues a product – it’s especially rare for them to announce that they’re discontinuing a product. I can only think of AirPower in recent memory as being a product discontinuation Apple has announced – and that was a product they never actually shipped in the first place!

I’m keen to break this event into two questions: why would Apple discontinue the original HomePod? And why would Apple announce the discontinuation of HomePod?

Why announce the discontinuation?

If Apple were looking to replace the original HomePod with a newer model – for example a slightly smaller iteration on the original, an updated A-series chip, the addition of a U1 chip, more colour options, etc. then they could simply run supplies down over time and introduce the new model to much fanfare.

There would be no need to announce a discontinuation – just as they don’t announce the discontinuation of every Apple Watch or iPhone model when they introduce new versions.

The reason seems clear: the future of the HomePod “line” is the HomePod mini as far anyone can see today. Apple’s statement emphasises that their future efforts will focus on HomePod mini and nothing else.

Apple never talks about future products, but if they had exciting plans for the future of home audio, their statement doesn’t seem to tee anything up. It’s like Apple is dousing the flames of any hope that there’s a vibrant future to Apple’s home audio.

Praise for HomePod

I have thoroughly enjoyed owning a HomePod since shortly after it was announced. I have one HomePod in our kitchen – I have never tried the stereo pairing but people seem to rave about how great it sounds.

I have always been blown away by the sound quality of our HomePod in the kitchen. It’s always a talking point with guests when tunes are playing – the sound is phenomenal.

The simplicity of the device sets it apart from other speakers for me – there are no extra plugs or ports, no ugly buttons, no fiddly interruptions to the Gherkin-esque patterned mesh speaker grill. It’s a device that earns its right to take pride of place in the home.

For all the gripes people have with Siri, I have always found Siri on HomePod to accomplish pretty much everything I expect a “smart” speaker to do: play music, tell me about the weather, set timers, and trip up on basically everything else.

HomePod’s ability to understand me no matter how loud I am playing music through it has always impressed me. It’s so good that when I use other smart speakers (and I have an Amazon Echo and a Google Home too) they feel inferior. If I am telling the speaker to increase the volume, the last thing I want is for the music to go quiet while the device understands my command. HomePod shows every other device up here.

Where HomePod has been weak

HomePod isn’t a total angel though – it of course has a list of issues. Issues I hoped Apple would resolve over time.

Critically, living in a home with people who (gasp) don’t exclusively live in the Apple ecosystem, raises some significant issues with HomePod. To begin with, the inability to use HomePod as a simple Bluetooth speaker has always seemed crazy to me – so for others visiting without an iPhone there’s absolutely no way for them to take advantage of this powerful, beautiful speaker. In my previous pre-pandemic life, it was always a little embarrassing to explain to guests that no they can’t simply connect their phone to the speaker.

Can you plug in an external device then? Given there’s no Bluetooth support? Err, no you can’t do that either. You can’t even unplug the power lead – much to my frustration give that my HomePod was a present from a recent trip to America. I have always had to plug the device into the wall with an ugly US-to-UK power adaptor. At least with the HomePod mini, while the cable is still non-detachable, the wall socket end is USB-C so you can easily plug a different power adaptor in.

The original HomePod is truly a minimal device even compared to Apple’s industry leading dedication to minimalism.

Combine the lack of Bluetooth support with the lack of third party music software support – no Spotify (we’re three years into this HomePod adventure!) and even still the support for other services is only just coming online.

Related to the lack of third party music support, you still can’t simply play many popular radio stations here in the UK. You can say “Play BBC Radio 1” to Alexa or Google Home, and –low and behold– you’re greeted with the latest and greatest chart music from Auntie Beeb. On HomePod? “Sorry. I can’t play that radio station.”

The vast majority of my frustrations with the original HomePod are software related. That’s a good thing – software can evolve much faster than hardware, and doesn’t usually require spending more money as a consumer.

The trajectory had so far looked bright on the software side – third party music support rolling out, HomePod features released at WWDC in 2020, such as the Intercom functionality, mostly rolled out to both the HomePod and mini together.

This announcement has hit many Apple fans hard – people who have wanted to buy into Apple’s vision for the home, with HomePod at the centre, and HomeKit supporting devices sprinkled throughout.

Is the Apple vision of the home disintegrating in front of our eyes, or are there brighter days ahead?

Where can Apple go next?

I try to be an optimist with everything in life, but I am truly struggling to apply that mindset to the future of HomePod.

I don’t understand the strategic decision for Apple to discontinue the original HomePod. Sure the sales may have been weak, but as far as I could see it confidently occupied the middle-top of the line in smart speaker technology. For a three year old device it was holding its own, and needed some internal speed improvements, and a whole load of love on the software front.

It could have done with a price drop too – and perhaps that’s where the bean counters at Apple had the final say. I don’t doubt the HomePod costs a lot to make – I know almost nothing about Hifi manufacture, but HomePod sounds expensive, and I don’t believe Apple has been pricing the device any higher than they need to.

The optimist in me hopes that we haven’t seen the last of Apple’s home audio efforts. Here are a few possible scenarios I can see...

Combine HomePod and Apple TV

Another device that seems to share a lot of similarities to the HomePod is the Apple TV. No not the app on your phone. No not the streaming service that competes with Netflix and Disney+. No no the app that’s pre-installed on pretty much all smart TVs. I mean the hardware device that Apple hasn’t updated in over three years.

I have been holding off on purchasing an Apple TV for a long time now. I want to buy into the ecosystem deeply and feel frustrated every time I have to use my Sony TV remote and interface. I’ve also been wanting to get a decent sound system for my TV too.

I don’t know how much it makes sense, but I’d love to see Apple do something unexpected here. Could they introduce a HomePod-style product for the living room, specifically designed for use with your TV, and build a next generation Apple TV in?

I can’t see Apple competing in the bargain-bin price wars of dongles like Chromecast and Amazon’s TV dongle. I also can’t see how they can release another speed bump to the current Apple TV product without significant changes to justify the price point.

I would buy an Apple TVPod (HomePod TV?) in a heartbeat.

HomePod Mini continues alone

Every time I try to decipher Apple’s plans based on their naming conventions I fail completely. I will never be able to understand the logic in their naming plans, but having a HomePod mini, with any other devices in the HomePod family sure feels weird.

Will HomePod mini continue to live on? Or will it go the way of the original HomePod once it’s been on the on the market long enough to not make recent buyers feel duped?

If HomePod mini continues, then perhaps they will strive to retain the attractive £99 price point, and keep improving the sound quality and feature set based on customer feedback.

Perhaps they will expand the lineup by simply keeping the current HomePod mini in the lineup for a decade, as they introduce newer HomePod minis at that £99 price point, so you’ll eventually be able to get into the HomePod ecosystem for much the same price point as an Amazon Echo (plus a tiny bit of Apple tax).

It’s just not Apple’s space

The option that concerns me most is – maybe Apple just doesn’t feel they can or should compete in this space.

Apple has always had pride in keeping its product lineup small and neat, so they can’t keep every product around forever – it’s part of what keeps them able to move fast, innovate, and lead in the markets it exists in.

But this always feels like a difficult argument to make for a company worth $2 trillion, who makes so many seemingly trivial or strategically unimportant products as a leather wallet that sits magnetically on the back of the iPhone, available in 4 colours. Or you can their number of SKUs in Watch bands growing into the hundreds – that looks like a company that is willing to expand its product ranges aggressively to dominate the markets it sits in.

So, the argument here is that, even though Apple can maintain a crazy number of SKUs in its iPhone and Apple Watch departments, even though it is actively expanding the AirPods lineup, even though Apple invested in some of the best home audio engineering facilities in the US, even though Apple has already built out a software roadmap for HomePod, and wants a big say in how smart home tech connects and operates in the future, that they don’t see this space as one they want to operate in and will bow out.

They’ll continue license HomeKit as a standard, they’ll continue to enable other manufacturers to bake AirPlay into their devices, and they’ll roll Apple TV out as an app on even more devices.

I certainly hope that isn’t the case, but who knows what Apple’s priorities are on this going into the future.

My fingers are crossed

I’m very much hoping to continue using my HomePod for as long as I can. I am keen to buy another one to create a stereo pair and hear what the “ultimate” HomePod experience is like.

Perhaps I’ll buy a HomePod mini too – and see just how the two compare.

My fingers are crossed that the future of the HomePod family looks as good as the original sounds. Only time will tell.

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