As was the case at Google’s I/O conference a few weeks ago, Apple’s annual WWDC is less a consumer event than a chance to set the stage for the new items announced throughout the rest of the year.
Yesterday’s software and hardware announcements were, for the most part, in line with the rumors and expectations. However, for those of us in the residential and consumer world, there was more than meets the eye … or ears. Today the question is more about what this means than what it is. And, as is also often the case, sometimes what was not shown was as important as what was.
In his address, Apple CEO Tim Cook focused on several new areas, including TVOS, the operating system that powers Apple TV. Rumored and now confirmed, Apple TV will add Amazon’s content through an app to be available later this year. This partially begins to put the now-aging Apple TV more on par with Roku and, of course, Amazon Fire TV. However, some caveats remain.
First, although Prime Video content will be available on Apple TV, Apple-captive content will still not be available as an app on other streaming devices. For those customers who select content from more than one streaming provider, it’s still probable they will need to provision more than one product. Put another way: “All devices have some content, but none have all.” This is particularly true as cable operators such as Comcast/Xfinity and Charter/Spectrum are still available only as Roku or phone apps and not on other platforms. There are some ways to get around certain limitations, but it’s not the easiest way to go.
Even more important in the era of Ultra HD, Apple still has not announced a “Gen.5” version Apple TV with 4K and HDR capability. So even though Apple TV will soon deliver Amazon content, it can’t show it the way other devices can. Perhaps we’ll see an Apple TV hardware update when the next TVOS update comes out — possibly in September.
A new Watch OS was also previewed, with new features and advancements mostly in the Watch, Fitness and Activity areas. Expanded Siri functionality and ties to HomeKit may benefit smart-home ecosystems. And while the Mac OS, MacBook and iMac product announcements were interesting and will be useful for business applications, they’re not as critical to home applications.
The new iOS, meanwhile, is important as it’s at the core of what both iPhone and iPad products can do. iOS 11, available later this year, will add some key advancements that will be of particular interest to those who use it for control and automation. They include a new visual interface for Siri queries, the option of a male voice, and more. In parallel, iOS will add Machine Language that in some ways is similar to the Deep Learning announced for the next Android OS. Face tracking and natural language-recognition completes also adds to the range of capabilities that one will expect to see in the IoT world in conjunction with Siri as the voice interface.
iOS will add HEVC capability for better pictures, and there will be an AR Kit for developers to use the new features of iOS 11 to create AR-based applications. Will we eventually see an iOS-based VR/AR headset or something along the lines of an iOS-centric version of Oculus or the phone-support for Android Daydream? Only time will tell, but a look at the impressive demos at the keynote event show that VR/AR is now definitely showing on Apple’s radar.
All of this takes us to the focus area that was most expected. The lead-in came during the iOS portion of the event with the announcement that “Speakers” will be a part of Home Kit though iOS 11 and AirPlay 2. This will build multiroom audio through iOS so that content may sent to any room with forthcoming AirPlay2 compatible AirPlay speakers or Apple TVs.
And, claiming that he wants to “reinvent home music,” Cook unveiled the HomePod speaker.
Displaying a Sonos product to show speakers that were, in Cook’s words, “speakers but not smart,” and an Amazon Echo to show something that was “smart, but not a speaker,” HomePod is intended to be both. Framing the concept product as “Being able to rock the house, be spatially aware and become a musicologist and control your home,” the device certainly seems to be capable of making good on those promises.
On the surface, all of the features and capabilities of HomePod — such as the content selection options and improved security — will make it something sure to be a hit with Apple fans and others to whom the performance, style and security of an Apple ecosystem product are key. The question, however, is to see how it will fare against the competition from Amazon and Google.
After all, the HomePod will sell for $349 when it goes on sale in December. Even ignoring any new models from the competition that will appear before then, it is anywhere from $170 more than an Amazon Echo to $200 more than an Echo Dot. It’s even $120 more than the forthcoming Amazon Echo Show with its camera and 7-inch touchscreen display, and $220 more than a Google Home.
Will the public see the value of HomePod? After all, for those who simply want good music, connecting a Google Chromecast or the audio output of an Echo Dot will deliver the music using existing quality components. For home-theater audio, while the technology of HomePod will balance out the soundfield in a two-unit configuration, will it deliver the localization and dialog intelligibility of a connected soundbar, or one to which a Dot is connected for voice control?
The HomePod’s feature list is certainly impressive, but will it be able to match the head start of Amazon’s Skills, particularly within the custom community? Will consumers want the Echo-to-Echo calling feature from Amazon or the “Call any phone” feature to come for Google Home? As Microsoft enters the space with speaker powered by Cortana first under the Harman Kardon brand, how will the combination of Microsoft’s technology and the proven audio expertise of Harman impact this market segment?
It’s hard to tell which brand or product will take the lead in the long term. That said, regardless of the success of Apple’s new entrants, their appearance will most certainly create a rising tide that will lift all boats. Indeed, it is fair to say that there doesn’t have to be a single winner. Carrying, provisioning and providing ongoing support and ancillary products and services such as home networks means that in this case, everyone can win.