SAN JOSÉ: Apple will later this year release a “HomePod” music-centric smart home speaker, challenging a market currently dominated by Amazon and Google in its latest move to weave deeper into people’s lives.
HomePod, aided by Apple’s Siri digital assistant, will be priced at $349 when it begins shipping in December in the United States, Australia and Britain, the tech giant announced at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference.
“We really believe it is going to take your home music experience to the next level,” Apple chief executive Tim Cook said as he unveiled it.
HomePod will take on lower priced Amazon Echo and Google Home, which have had momentum in the arena of voice-controlled speakers capable of controlling smart appliances, fetching content from the internet and more.
It is designed to work with the Apple Music subscription service and can produce rich sound while tapping into the artificial intelligence power of Siri.
Apple vice president Phil Schiller said the company’s Siri team had tuned the assistant into a “musicologist” that learns the tastes of listeners and gets songs from the internet cloud.
The speaker has the “power to rock the house,” according to Schiller, and the aim is to make HomePod a potent assistant for news, messages, weather, traffic, home controls and more.
Playing to strength
HomePod capped a keynote presentation that included updates to Apple’s iPad and Mac laptop lines, and upgraded operating software enabling augmented reality for iPhones and iPads.
Analysts said Apple is playing to its strength in the music industry by focusing on sound quality and its catalog of songs.
“Apple is smart to frame the HomePod as a music-centric and audio-centric device rather than just another smart speaker or another home for Siri,” said Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson.
“The fact that Apple is claiming to marry really great and smart audio with a smart assistant and cloud music service makes this device unique in the market.”
Some industry insiders, however, note Apple will be under more pressure to improve the computing smarts of its Siri software in the face of offerings from rivals Google and Amazon.
Apple has given Siri new male and female voices, described as more natural and expressive, and added abilities such as translating English phrases into Chinese, French, German, Italian or Spanish.
Apple said it is also using ‘on-device learning’ to enable Siri to take people’s tastes into account.
Amazon has dominated the connected speakers category since 2014 when it introduced its first Echo, which responds to voice commands and allows users to order goods and control connected appliances.
A survey released last month by research firm eMarketer found Echo speakers held 70.6 percent of the US market, compared with 23.8 percent for Google Home.
Macs and iPads
Cook also used the Apple keynote to show off new iPad and Mac computer models, as well as provide glimpses at coming versions of the software powering the technology titan’s devices.
Apple senior vice president of software engineering Craig Federighi said the next Mac operating system will be named “High Sierra” in tribute to the California mountain range.
High Sierra features will include being able to stop unexpected videos from starting to play automatically when landing on web pages and “intelligent tracking prevention” that will prevent ads from following people about the internet.
High Sierra will be released later this year as a free update, according to Federighi.
Along with upgraded versions of iPad and Mac laptops, Apple unveiled an iMac Pro work station that had the computing built in behind the screen and was touted as the most powerful computer the company has ever made.
Aimed at high-end design professionals rather than the home market, the iMac Pro is to begin shipping in December with a starting price of $4,999.
Mac models were also boosted to work with virtual reality gear, a move by Apple into technology that Facebook has embraced with its Oculus unit.
Apple told the developers they were overhauling the App Store, giving it a fresh look, and beginning to add the floor plans of shops and airports to its map program.
And the operating system for mobile devices is getting a major update with iOS 11.
Changes included making iPads more efficient and being able to send money to friends using Apple’s messaging application for mobile devices.
A set of iOS 11 features including enabling smartphone cameras to read QR codes are aimed at the China market, where Apple would like to bolster iPhone sales. AFP