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How Google showed Apple that HomePod can succeed

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that’s taken over our lives.


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Can Apple’s HomePod capture emotions?

James Martin/CNET

If you’re only moved by the displays at CES, Google and Amazon have this smart speaker thing sewn up. They’re infiltrating every product they can, while Apple can’t even get its HomePod launched. Yet, as Apple’s music-centric device prepares to finally make its debut — perhaps even very shortly — it’s worth wondering whether Cupertino is really so far behind.

I was moved to this thought by an ad Google’s been running recently.

It’s for Google Home Mini, and it purports to persuade you of all the wonderful domestic problems this little thing can solve.

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Well, now. I don’t think I’ve ever confused the light switch with the garbage disposal. Ironing?

Does anyone still do that? And asking Google’s assistant to change the temperature, because, um, women always like it warmer than men (did James Damore write that line before he left?)? Oh, it’s actually healthier to walk across the room and do it.

There’s no doubt that Google and Amazon have developed far more smarts than Apple in this area so far. It’s also true, though, that these devices can’t do very much. Moreover, the strategic aims of Google and Amazon are different from Apple’s.

They’re both companies that rely on maximizing reach. Apple, on the other hand, wants to dominate the top end of the market first and foremost. If the music-focused HomePod emerges and truly blows away ears, then it’s made the first step toward blowing away hearts and minds.

And one thing we know about Apple is that it’s always had the ability to incite emotions, thereby owning a market. Smartwatches are known as Apple watches. Tablets are known as iPads.

Neither was first into the arena. This time around, it won’t be so easy. Apple’s left its heart in hardware.

Yet it’s increasingly becoming a software-driven world. Personally, I wouldn’t have the salt cellar that is Google Home or the garbage can that is Amazon Echo in my house because they’re aesthetically painful. These things are pieces of furniture, after all.

The fact that they still can’t do much helps me keep them out. Many disagree, as they’ve bought Echos is apparently large numbers. Apple has two problems.

Siri and security. The former has never evinced anything approaching smartness. The latter, though, could be an even bigger problem.

Apple claims to embrace your personal privacy. Yet these devices are as much smart microphones as smart speakers. Cupertino might turn out to be clever in emphasizing the speaker part first.

There might come a day when humanity realizes that having microphones that relay information to strangers all over the house may not be a wonderful thing. There’s another aspect in which Apple might have an advantage. When it comes to its famed and gently all-enveloping ecosystem, it has something that, for example, Amazon doesn’t: phones.

Siri and HomeKit are far greater international presences through iPhones. They work neatly — or as neatly as these things can — with other areas of your Apple world, such as iCloud. Might it be the case that Apple’s most valuable customers will choose to keep things simple, rather mix and match their way to a less-than-integrated electronic hell?

Yes, of course Apple may have blown it.

I fancy, though, that the night is still young and the party has only just begun.

There’s still time to decide whom to go home with.

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