The HomePod Failed Because It Didn’t Follow the iPhone Playbook

Original iPhone 2007 Credit: Marleypug / Shutterstock
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Although this week’s news that Apple had chosen to discontinue the HomePod came rather suddenly, upon reflection it didn’t really seem all that surprising. The product had never had much more than a niche following, and looking back, it seems that Apple’s biggest mistake in producing and marketing the HomePod was its failure to take a page out of the iPhone playbook.

When Apple unveiled the original iPhone back in 2007, it wasn’t just a cool device — it was a stroke of marketing genius. With the original iPhone, Apple had produced the “everyman smartphone” — an accessible and versatile device that carried none of the power user baggage of every other smartphone of the day.

When the iPhone debuted, approximately 95 percent of mobile phone users were carrying what we’d now call “feature phones.” The combined smartphone market share of that era — made up of companies like Blackberry, Windows Mobile, Palm, and Symbian — accounted for about 5 percent.

The biggest problem with the cell phone market back then wasn’t that users didn’t want their mobile phones to do a lot more — most folks certainly did, but sadly, the devices and operating systems that promised more features were mostly complicated and intimidating.

In one fell swoop, the iPhone became the answer to that problem.

The meteoric rise of the iPhone’s popularity came from that pent-up demand. Even though the original iPhone was a very limited device by today’s standards, customers lined up around the block to get their hands on the device, and it wasn’t just Apple fans; many people were introduced to the world of Apple through the magic of the iPhone.

While the iPhone had more than its share of vocal opponents, you only had to consider the source of those objections to see precisely what Apple’s strategy was. The most disdain for the iPhone came almost entirely from the 5 percent of folks who were already smartphone power users.

After all, when simply comparing specs, the iPhone didn’t do nearly as much as the competing smartphones of the day. It didn’t even have copy-and-paste, much less support for things like MMS or third-party apps. This led many more advanced users to see the iPhone as nothing more than a “toy.”

Ironically, many of the same arguments had been levied for years against Apple’s previous flagship mobile device: the iPod. Yet, while power users railed against the popularity of the little portable media player, declaring it little more than a passing fad because of its limitations, Apple just kept printing money as it continued to sell hundreds of millions of iPods.

Apple’s strategy for both the iPod and the iPhone were obvious: Take the few things that users really need to do on a mobile device, and do them brilliantly well.

Sure, the iPod wouldn’t let you throw on any old MP3 file and play it. You also couldn’t customize the menus or add wallpapers. However, what it did do was play music so easily and intuitively that someone who had never seen an iPod could pick one up, find a song, and start listening within 30 seconds.

The iPhone followed that iPod ethos, taking the core features that most people really needed in a smartphone — a browser, an email client, a messaging app, a phone app, and a music player — and crafted versions of those to be the best user experiences ever created on a mobile device.

It may be hard to believe today, but Safari on the iPhone was the first mobile browser that actually supported normal web pages. Likewise, the iPhone Mail app was the first to actually offer rich, graphical, HTML email support. These apps were both functional and fun, making them a complete joy to use.

Before the iPhone arrived, I had personally used nearly every other mobile operating system on the planet, starting with the original Pilot 1000 of the early 1990s. When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone in San Francisco in January 2007, I was in the audience toting a Nokia E62 — the same one being shown by Jobs in the photo above as an example of bad smartphone design.

I had the opportunity to see the new iPhone up close before it went on sale six months later, and while I was very impressed, I remained skeptical whether it would meet the needs of a power user like me — after all, it didn’t even have a physical keyboard.

However, it only took me a few days after getting my hands on one to make me realize how much of a breath of fresh air it really was. After a week with the original 2007 iPhone, there was no going back to anything else.

Enter the HomePod

With the iPhone and the iPod, Apple looked at the needs of the majority of the consumer market and made sure to focus on those, generally ignoring the demands of more sophisticated power users.

In other words, it designed the iPhone for the 95 percent of feature phone users who feared smartphones, not the 5 percent of smartphone users who already had a long list of requirements.

Unfortunately, whatever dream team was behind the HomePod seemed to forget this magic formula that had made Apple’s most iconic products so overwhelmingly successful.

The HomePod was not designed for the average user. It arguably wasn’t even designed for the average Apple user.

We may never know for certain what Apple’s engineers and product designers were thinking with the HomePod, but from the language of its 2017 announcement and the product that ultimately came to market in 2018, it’s not hard to believe that they were targeting audio enthusiasts more than average consumers.

Even if that wasn’t the intent, it was ultimately the result. The HomePod was too expensive to be a smart speaker, and although the audio engineering contained inside was absolutely outstanding, it was arguably too brilliant for its own good.

All that technology drove the price up to a level that put it into a niche market.

The problem is that audio enthusiasts, or “audiophiles,” are the equivalent of those smartphone power users that Apple tacitly ignored with the original iPhone. With the HomePod, however, those folks are exactly who Apple seemed to be focusing on.

Sales of sub-$100 speakers have repeatedly proven that users shopping in that price range will buy just about anything. Purchases are made more on looks and features than sound quality. Low-priced speakers were flying off the shelves long before Amazon and Google entered the smart speaker market, and both of those companies were smart enough to capitalize on that reality.

Price a speaker in the $300+ range, however, and you’re in a totally different market. At that price, people care about sound quality. You’ve entered a much more demanding and picky class of users.

In fact, it showed a fair bit of hubris on Apple’s part to believe that it could successfully compete on that playing field. One would think the company would have learned from its previous mistakes.

The iPod Hi-Fi

Lest anybody pull out the tired old “Steve Jobs wouldn’t have done this,” trope, let’s not forget that it was Jobs himself that presided over the unveiling of Apple’s last failed attempt at a speaker: the 2006 iPod Hi-Fi.

Don’t get me wrong; I loved the iPod Hi-Fi. I bought two of them and still have one in my home office. However, even my colleagues at the time — also Apple fans and product reviewers — laughed at my decision. My editor, who had personally reviewed the Apple speaker, teasingly referred to me as “that guy.”

For me, the iPod Hi-Fi won on design more than it did on audio quality. I’m not an audiophile, nor have I ever pretended to be one. The sound quality on the iPod Hi-Fi was good enough for me, but I ultimately bought it for the overall design and user experience.

The Apple style and the fact that these were “always-on” speakers with no controls to fuss with really appealed to me. I could walk into my living room or bedroom and simply drop my iPod on and start playing something right away. Plus, I bought two AirPort Express units to use with AirTunes, effectively turning them into early generation HomePods — without the Siri integration, of course.

Needless to say, when the HomePod arrived years later, I jumped in without a moment’s hesitation. However, as much as I loved it, I also had to concede that it was an iPhone accessory more than a speaker — a product designed only for those deeply entrenched in the Apple ecosystem.

We’re not even considering the utility of HomePod for non-Apple users (frankly, it has none), but even for hardcore iPhone fans, HomePod requires a higher level of commitment to Apple’s products and services than any other product we’ve yet encountered.Jesse Hollington, 2018 HomePod Review, iLounge

The bottom line is that Apple tried to do something very different with both the iPod Hi-Fi and the HomePod. Personally, I loved those differences, but I’m also perceptive enough to understand that I was the exception that proved the rule.

The HomePod mini

There’s no doubt the iPhone was also a completely different product than anything that had come before. However, the iPhone’s differences were to make it more appealing to the majority of smartphone users. By comparison, the HomePod’s uniqueness put it into an even narrower niche than most other speakers.

The HomePod ended up in a very weird place — it was too expensive to be just a smart speaker but didn’t offer compelling enough audio quality and features to justify its high price tag in the minds of audio enthusiasts.

It may have captured the hearts and minds of serious Apple fans like me, but that’s not as large of a group as we’d like to believe.

The HomePod mini, on the other hand, was the first evidence that Apple may have learned its lesson. The HomePod mini is arguably what the original HomePod should have been in the first place — at least as far as the wider consumer market is concerned. While it’s still a device designed exclusively for Apple users (it’s basically useless without an iPhone to set it up), the $99 price tag puts it solidly into the “smart speaker” rather than “premium speaker” category.

The HomePod mini still offers good sound quality for its price, but it’s also the type of sound that an audiophile will scoff at — in the very same way that Blackberry and Windows Mobile users ridiculed the original iPhone. Meanwhile, just like the iPhone, Apple will sell millions of HomePod mini speakers by ignoring the elitist pundits and delivering the features the majority of its customers are actually looking for.

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