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Apple’s new HomePod smart speaker brings Siri home

The Siri-powered, music-focused device, priced at $349 and available in December, joins an increasingly crowded list of smart speakers.

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Apple on Monday revealed the HomePod smart speaker as a new way to take over your house.

The highly anticipated device -- a squat, cylinder-shaped speaker that's powered by Apple's Siri digital assistant -- is riding a new wave of excitement for smart speakers. Google, Microsoft, HP, Lenovo and Samsung are all jumping into the mix to try to catch up to Amazon, which popularized smart speakers with its Echo device in late 2014. Now it's Apple's turn.

"Just like with portable music, we want to reinvent home music," Apple CEO Tim Cook said at the company's annual Worldwide Developers Conference.

The wireless, 7-inch-tall HomePod, which responds to the greeting "Hey Siri," will be available starting in December in the US, UK and Australia for $349. That's well above the price of Amazon's $180 original Echo and Google's $130 Home speaker -- and seven times that of the smaller $50 Echo Dot. Apple executives looked to justify that higher price by pitching the HomePod as a premium-tier speaker for music -- a big focus for Apple -- while implying that the Echo and Home are not.

Amazon and Google declined to comment for this story.

Many tech leaders see the home as a major battleground for gaining new users and selling more electronics, and are adding more smarts into our lights, sprinkler systems and appliances. Smart speakers take on extra importance since lots of these executives now expect these devices -- not phones -- will become the hubs that power smart homes. 

The stakes are high for the HomePod, Apple's first new category of hardware since the Apple Watch came out two years ago. Failure to break into smart speakers could ice the company out of a new and growing area in tech. Apple already tried to make its iPhone a smart home hub, using Siri and its Home app to operate connected devices like locks and lights. The new speaker offers a bit of an admission that its strategy didn't pan out.

Smart speakers are expected to surge in popularity, with global sales reaching 15 million units by 2020, up from just 1.8 million last year, according to Strategy Analytics. These voice-activated, stationary speakers can be used, typically in a kitchen or living room, to play music, order a pizza, dim the lights or even tell a knock-knock joke, all without having to look at a screen or use your hands. The devices are powered by artificially intelligent digital assistants, which can be updated regularly with new functions.

HomePod matches many other smart speakers' offerings, including news, weather forecasts, timers and controlling connected home electronics. But Apple has put a lot of its focus on the HomePod's sound quality, citing the device's Apple-designed woofer and "a custom array of seven beam-forming tweeters" for improved acoustics. Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing, told the audience the HomePod has "spacial awareness," allowing it adjust the audio based on its location in a room. 

"The name needs to grow on me, but it does fit in really well with Apple's focus on music," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst for Creative Strategies.

Apple is late to the game. Amazon's two-year head start with its Alexa-powered Echo smart speaker has allowed it to introduce a whole range of Echo devices, partner with dozens of smart home device makers and sell millions of speakers. Last month, Amazon also revealed the Echo Show, which includes a screen and camera for video calls -- two pieces of hardware Apple's speaker doesn't have despite its imposing set of tweeters. Google started selling its competing Google Home, powered by Google Assistant, in November.

Still, it would be foolish to count Apple out in any tech race, since the company has an intensely loyal fan base and often shows up late to tech trends only to outfox the competition with more polished products. Apple can also smoothly integrate new hardware with its existing electronics, potentially giving its users a reason to jump to the new device even if they already own an Echo or Home. Schiller said the HomePod works with your Apple Music subscription, turning Siri into a "musicologist."

A big question for the new speaker, though, is whether Siri is good enough to power its own dedicated device. Siri was introduced as a feature in the iPhone 4S in 2011, three years before Amazon came out with Alexa and the Echo. But Apple has been slow to improve Siri's voice-recognition technology and set of responses, especially compared with Alexa and Google Assistant. A smart speaker housing an underachieving voice assistant could weaken demand.

With a nod to its need to improve Siri, Apple executives on Monday said they'll be using machine learning to improve Siri's ability to understand you and help it respond with a computer voice that sounds more natural.

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Shara Tibken contributed to this story.

First published at 12:24 p.m. PT.
Updated, 12:50 p.m. PT:
Adds more background and pricing.

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