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Commentary Smart Home

Apple's HomePod smart speaker is better, but here are 5 things it still needs to beat Alexa

Commentary: AirPlay 2 improved the HomePod, but Apple's smart speaker isn't perfect yet.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Apple's iOS 11.4 software is here at last, and with it AirPlay 2. AirPlay 2 adds multiroom audio and stereo pairing -- features we've been waiting for since WWDC 2017.

Multiroom audio allows you to play the same music or podcast in different rooms at the same time on HomePod smart speakers, Apple TVs and other AirPlay-enabled devices. Stereo pairing lets you set two HomePods next to each other to improve sound quality in that room.

I'm glad AirPlay 2 is here, but Apple still has a lot of work to do to for its Siri-powered smart speaker to match or exceed the broad appeal of Alexa or Google Assistant

Drop the price

Apple has one smart speaker, the pricey $349 HomePod. It should introduce an entry-level alternative. 

Amazon's speakers range in price from the $50 Echo Dot to the $230 Echo Show; Google's speakers range from the $50 Home Mini to the $399 Home Max

Apple said it wasn't trying to compete directly with devices like the Echo Dot or the Home Mini when the HomePod first hit stores -- it was prioritizing sound quality over smart home functionality.

The tech giant bet that folks would pay more for the HomePod's superior speaker. But people are largely buying lower priced Amazon and Google smart speakers over the pricier Echo Show or the Home Max, according to a Voicebot report

If the Home Max really only captured 0.6 percent of the 2017 market share, as Voicebot claims, where does that leave the similarly high-end HomePod? A Bloomberg report -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- says HomePod sales are slow too. 

There is a rumor Apple is developing a cheaper HomePod speaker, but it hasn't been confirmed. 

Now playing: Watch this: Apple's HomePod brings the bass, Siri voice control
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Improve Siri

Siri needs a pretty significant overhaul to reach the sheer number of features as Alexa and Google Assistant. Here's what I want to see added:

Voice training -- Siri can't distinguish between voices on the HomePod. Anyone who says "Hey, Siri" will get a response from the speaker. 

Calling --  If I ask Siri on the HomePod to call one of my iPhone contacts, the voice AI replies: "I wish I could, but I can't help you make calls on HomePod." 

Playing music -- You can only use Siri voice commands on the HomePod to play Apple-approved music services. For Spotify, YouTube and any other third-party service, you have to use AirPlay 2. 

Controlling Apple TV -- While you can use voice control on the Apple TV remote, you can't ask Siri on the HomePod to play The Office on Netflix

Basic questions -- Siri's ability to answer everyday questions is somewhat unreliable. Sometimes the correct response comes immediately, other times a similar question returns this annoying response: "I can't get the answer to that on HomePod."

Open up music streaming

img-f1ab804da4cd-1

Select one or multiple HomePod speakers to play audio from your phone's Control Center.

Screenshot by Megan Wollerton/CNET

You should be able to say, "Hey Siri, play my 'focus playlist' on Spotify." But you can't. 

Dissapointingly, you can only use Siri voice commands to play music from Apple-approved streaming services, referenced in the Audio Sources section of this HomePod specs page:

  • Apple Music
  • iTunes Music Purchases
  • iCloud Music Library with an Apple Music or iTunes Match subscription
  • Beats 1 Live Radio
  • Apple Podcasts

Every other service -- YouTube, Spotify, Pandora -- you have to control manually via AirPlay 2 from the Control Center on your iPhone or iPad (see the screenshot). You can ask Siri to stop or resume a song streaming from a third-party service (I got this to work on YouTube), but you can't say, "Hey Siri, play 'Yulunga (Spirit Dance)' by Dead Can Dance on YouTube." 

Alexa and Google Assistant work with a wide range of third-party music services. Here's more details on supported music services for Siri (on the HomePod), Alexa (on Echo speakers) and Google Assistant (on Home speakers).

Add device partners

Apple needs more smart home integrations. Period. 

Siri currently has way fewer than either Alexa or Google Assistant. Follow the links below to see what products work with Apple, Amazon and Google smart speakers:

Apple previously required a specific piece of hardware called an MFi chip to be installed in third-party devices for them to work with its smart home platform HomeKit. It meant manufacturers had to release next-gen versions of their existing products just to make them compatible. Amazon and Google took a more open approach to the smart home from the beginning, giving them more opportunities to grow their respective platforms. 

Apple no longer has that hardware requirement, so it's easier for devices partners to support HomeKit now. Hopefully that will spur more choice for Apple-loyal smart home enthusiasts.

Introduce third-party skills

Apple should allow outside developers to create voice commands for Siri.

Amazon and Google make it much easier for third parties to create content for Alexa and Google Assistant than Apple does for Siri. This is one of the main reasons -- if not the main reason -- Alexa in particular has thousands of available skills. Some of the skills tie in directly to smart home control -- things like turning on lights, or adjusting a thermostat. Other skills are trivia games, workout routines and meditation exercises. 

There are pros and cons to opening a platform up to developers. If anyone can create an Alexa skill, they aren't as closely regulated and sometimes come with clunky invocation words like, "Alexa, ask Geneva when the dishwasher will be finished." 

It also means that some of the skills aren't particularly good. I tested out all of the Alexa workout skills and of the 30-plus options, only six actually offered useful guided routines. 

Apple avoids the pitfalls of awkward phrasing and poor quality integrations simply by not allowing the possibility. But the company is also missing opportunities to broaden Siri's scope.

The outlook

Apple needs to accomplish all of these things to be taken as seriously in the smart home as Amazon and Google. Right now the HomePod is a great speaker with built-in Siri voice functionality. Adding new devices and features, lowering hardware prices, making Siri better and introducing more partnerships should give Apple a better chance of staying competitive.

AirPlay 2 takes Apple part of the way, but it isn't enough to get every shopper to buy a HomePod over an Alexa or Google Assistant speaker.