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Smart Home

Apple, Siri fall further behind Google, Amazon in the smart home

The hardware heavyweight may make the HomePod, but it doesn't seem all that interested in overtaking its leading rivals.

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The HomePod, which is pricey and was late to market, remains an also-ran in smart speakers.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

At a launch event last month, Google introduced a countertop display called Home Hub that's powered by Google Assistant, its digital helper.

A month earlier, Amazon unveiled roughly 70 new products and features at a similar presentation. Almost all of them revolved around its Alexa voice assistant.

Apple held not one, but two hardware launch events in the last two months, but neither included new smart home products. And the company didn't suggest any big changes are in store for Siri, its digital assistant.

The undeniable reality is that Apple is almost invisible compared to market leaders Amazon and Google when it comes to smart home technology. This fall's cavalcade of pre-holiday hardware presentations not only reinforced the point, but showed it's gotten worse. With each year that passes without Apple taking any big step forward, the company is at greater risk of being boxed out of the new and quickly growing market.

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"Apple is not in danger of falling behind," said Michael R. Levin, co-founder of market research firm Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, pointing to the tiny share of the smart speaker market Apple's HomePod has carved out. "They have already fallen way behind."

If Apple doesn't shake up its smart home strategy, it could lose out on a potentially profitable new stream of money. Meanwhile Amazon and Google could lure away its hardware customers by bringing them into their Alexa and Google Assistant ecosystems. The company's inaction could mean Apple's millions of loyal fans will have fewer options in smart home assistants and be forced to use a competitor's platform that won't work as well with their iPhones and MacBooks.

Apple hasn't lost just yet, since the smart home market remains young and fragmented, said Jack Narcotta, an analyst for Strategy Analytics. But, he added, the window of opportunity is closing fast.

"I don't think they're interested in how Amazon and Google are looking at the market," Narcotta said, "but there is a risk that the longer they wait, the further these competitors move ahead."

Apple, Amazon and Google representatives didn't respond to a request for comment for this story.

What about Siri?

Last June, Apple introduced its first smart speaker, the Siri-powered HomePod. The device was slated to be available in December, just in time for holiday shopping. Instead it was delayed until February.

Amazon introduced its Alexa-powered Echo speaker in late 2014, by comparison, and is now the dominant market leader. Google rolled out its own Google Home speaker in late 2016. Both Amazon and Google have since added a slew of new devices to expand their smart-speaker worlds. The new products include the Google Home Max high-end speaker, Amazon Echo Spot mini-touchscreen device and the Echo Wall Clock.

The cheapest Google and Amazon speakers  -- called the Home Mini and Echo Dot -- are $50 each, far below the HomePod's $349 price tag.

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The Facebook Portal is one of many smart displays that allow video chats and interaction with voice assistants. There's no Apple equivalent.

James Martin/CNET

Apple, meanwhile, has just the HomePod, which was barely mentioned at its latest product launch events. Apple also hasn't signaled big improvements to Siri. Instead, it's noodled at the margins, adding Siri Shortcuts app for creating personalized Siri commands, as well as searches for songs by lyrics and a few new languages.

While Amazon and Google race to outdo each other by introducing new gadgets and feature, Apple is conspicuously quiet. Its limited number of smart home devices matches the limited capabilities of Siri and its smaller number of partnerships with smart home device makers such as Philips, Belkin and Ecobee.

Plus with the smart home market quickly moving toward people owning multiple speakers, Apple's single speaker is too expensive to meet the current customer demand, CIRP co-founder Josh Lowitz said.

Amazon's devices currently account for 63 percent of the smart speaker market in the US, with its Echo and Echo Dot leading the pack, according to an October report from Strategy Analytics. Google claimed 17 percent, with its Home and Home Mini in the next two spots. Apple's HomePod was way down the list with just 4 percent. That's unlikely to change much unless Apple does something different.

Samsung and Microsoft, which both have voice assistants, have also failed to break into the smart speaker market and are even further behind than Apple. Samsung plans to sell Galaxy Home speaker powered by its Bixby assistant, but hasn't yet announced pricing or availability.

A dimmer view of Apple's prospects

Last December, I interviewed a handful of analysts for a similar story about Apple's smart home ambitions. Those interviews -- which took place before the HomePod hit the market -- were notably more enthusiastic about Apple's prospects. Analysts pointed to Apple's loyal customers, its tight integration of hardware and software, and its gobs of cash -- nearly a quarter trillion dollars as of July -- as obvious strengths Apple could use to push its way into smart home.

They added that Apple is known as a fast follower, letting competitors exhaust themselves trying to invent new markets only to swoop in at an opportunistic time with a far more polished product. After all, it pulled that trick with smartphones and smartwatches. Why not with smart home products, too?

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Apple is still strong, of course. But analysts say Amazon and Google have outpaced it and will be difficult to catch. Once a customer is locked into a smart home system, it's far less likely for Apple to pull them away, they said.

"We don't see consumers having more than one system in a home," CIRP's Levin said in an email. "And, once a consumer commits to that system, switching systems (say, from Echo to HomePod) is even more difficult, after the investment in learning a system and acquiring accessories."

Narcotta, from Strategy Analytics, said people shouldn't expect Apple to take a mass-market approach to smart home, instead playing to its strengths and existing profit centers. That means folks should expect Apple to encourage them to control their lights and locks with their iPhones or iPads, not a low-priced smart speaker, like a rumored HomePod Mini, that would directly compete against Amazon's $50 Echo Dot.

So, what could awake Apple from its smart home slumber? That would happen if Amazon and Google manage to threaten sales of iPhones or iPads with their smart home gadgets, Narcotta said. That would certainly get Apple's attention very quickly.

But it hasn't happened.

"The day that Amazon or Google start eating into the iPhone customer base," he said, "then there'll probably be a few late-night meetings at the campus."

First published at 5 a.m. PT.
Updated at 11.22 a.m. PT to add more background information.

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