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This fall, Apple surprised us by tossing some audio and music-related announcements into an event that was expected to be entirely about Macs, setting up a sort of “pre-game show” for its Unleashed event, where it unveiled the AirPods 3, more colours for the HomePod mini, and a new Apple Music Voice Plan that came entirely out of left field.
Of these, the new $4.99 voice-only subscription tier for Apple Music was probably the most unusual new initiative. Clearly aimed at those who prefer a screen-free listening experience, the new plan provides access to the entire Apple Music catalogue, but only by calling up songs, artist, albums, and predefined playlists using Siri.
There’s an extensive list of other drawbacks too: You won’t get to hear music in Lossless or Dolby Atmos Spatial Audio, there are no lyrics, no music videos, and no support for a personal music library. iPhone, iPad, and Mac users who subscribe to the voice plan will also get a dumbed-down user interface in the Music app that basically just explains how to call up music using Siri.
It’s still somewhat unclear exactly how popular this new plan will be in the long term. Only Apple knows how many subscribers it’s attracted so far, and as usual, it’s not going to be sharing any specific numbers any more than it does for any other service. If Apple talks about the Apple Music Voice Plan at all, we can expect to hear the typically sunny but vague comments at earnings calls, along the lines of “the new Apple Music Voice Plan is proving to be very popular,” without offering any context as to exactly what that means.
Although Apple may not need any help selling the HomePod mini, we think there’s a real missed opportunity here to make its services more “sticky” and promote the value of the Apple ecosystem overall.
The Apple Music Voice Plan seems like it was born with the HomePod mini in mind, and in a world where most streaming music services are offering an entirely free tier in some form or another, Apple could have created incredible synergy by including the Apple Music Voice Plan with the HomePod mini at no extra monthly cost.
Granted, the free tiers offers by Spotify and the like are ad-supported, which is something that Apple has pointedly said it will never do. However, considering Apple’s willingness to give away other services like Apple TV+, pairing a similarly generous offer with the HomePod mini would add some nice value to the smart speaker right out of the box.
It’s actually somewhat unusual that Apple hasn’t already done something like this, considering how easy it already is to get an extended free trial of Apple Music, at least during certain times of the year.
In an ideal world, Apple would just give away the Apple Music Voice Plan with the HomePod mini in perpetuity, but we’re also pragmatic enough to know that this probably wouldn’t happen. However, a year of free access to the Apple Music Voice Plan with the purchase of a HomePod mini could make sense for many reasons.
- Firstly, it would immediately make the HomePod mini more attractive. New users who hadn’t yet considered streaming services could jump right into Apple Music, and even those already using an alternative like Spotify might consider switching — especially since Spotify isn’t even available on the HomePod yet.
- Although the HomePod mini appears to be selling well, Apple still has a very long way to go before it comes even close to Amazon and Google in the smart speaker market.
- It would showcase what Siri is capable of on the HomePod mini, especially in light of Apple’s new mood and activity-based playlists. These nicely complement other HomePod mini features like ambient sounds in a way that other streaming services can’t match.
- This would also likely result in many more conversions to the full $9.99 Apple Music plan. The HomePod mini is still primarily part of the Apple ecosystem — you need an iPhone or iPad to set it up in the first place, after all — and once users get a taste of Apple Music through the Voice Plan, they’re much more likely to want the full Apple Music experience on their iPhone.
Apple could also use this to promote more HomePod mini sales by figuring out a way to offer an additional year of the Apple Music Voice Plan with every new HomePod mini. This would encourage users to add more HomePods to their network, and upgrade to newer models as they become available.
The downside, of course, is that this would likely have rivals like Spotify crying foul, claiming that Apple is being anticompetitive by favouring its own services. However, Spotify’s sabre-rattling is starting to lose credibility; Apple lobbed the ball for implementing features like AirPlay 2 and HomePod support into its court nearly two years ago, yet the streaming giant has yet to implement any of these features.