Apple cancels the HomePod after failing to find product-market fit
The HomePod was announced in 2017 to much fanfare and great sound for its size, but it never quite found a market.
The HomePod Mini will live on, and for reasons I’ll get into, I’m not surprised it is sticking around. The big HomePod was doomed when it was released without something like the Mini along side it. All products exist within a larger ecosystem, and Apple didn’t provide a robust enough ecosystem for the HomePod.
The problem the HomePod had was that it was neither competitive with Sonos and other competitors for whole-home audio, nor was it competitive with Amazon’s many Alexa offerings for smart home uses. By itself, the HomePod was a very compelling product, and would have probably done really well 10 years ago, but the expectations and use cases for home audio have changed dramatically in recent years.
Not finding a product-market fit is a recipe for failure, and Apple never committed to finding one. It seems like Apple thought creating a single great sounding and cool looking speaker was enough, and it probably would be for a smaller speaker company, but for a company like Apple, anything under many millions in yearly in sales is not worth their time.
The HomePod debuted at $349 for a single speaker, which is a fair amount of money. A stereo pair set you back almost $700, but famously the HomePod didn’t work in stereo mode at launch. When I write that last sentence, I almost can’t believe it.
Stereo sound is a hallmark of music listening, and Apple tried to sell a premium audio experience that was shipping with stereo sound “coming soon.” The HomePod wasn’t a minimal viable product at launch. It’s not acceptable to “iterate” to stereo audio in a premium product.
The price was also too high, and Apple dropped it to $299 too late. A better price and stereo out of the gate would have given the HomePod a lot better ground to stand on, but I still don’t think that was enough.
Apple also shouldn’t have released the HomePod without the Mini. The Mini helped establish a larger ecosystem, and made the HomePods more competitive as Alexa competitors. If you look at all of the smart speaker makers, they all make a range of speaker sizes, and the best companies make speakers of different sizes, soundbars, and subs to help provide a complete ecosystem.
The HomePod didn’t fit into the larger ecosystem of home audio. The soundbar is one of the main pieces of audio that people are buying these days. Where was the HomePod soundbar (or the ability to use several HomePods in a home theater configuration)?
Sonos has shown a clear blueprint here: try to own every phase of home audio. Sonos will take care of your TV watching needs as much as your music listening needs. Sonos will provide you with speakers to be wall mounted and speakers to throw in a bag and take places.
It took Sonos many years to get here, but they and their competitors have set the tone for what is expected. It’s hard to go into a house in 2021 and not find at least a soundbar hooked up to the main TV. Sonos has people covered with two strong soundbar options that can be used alone or with a subwoofer or with a subwoofer and surround speakers.
Apple expected people to have HomePods and a soundbar from another company in the same room? This never made any sense to me. Any room in my house that has a TV has a soundbar and surround speakers, automatically eliminating the HomePod from those rooms (my biggest rooms for music listening).
Then there came the smart home issues from a price and product perspective. The HomePod has Siri, and it can be used to control your lights, thermostat, blinds, etc. It works well for this.
If you truly want to setup a smart home where you control everything with your voice, you need these speakers all over. It’s a lot easier to justify doing this for $99 instead of $349. This way a person can save the expensive speakers for rooms where they really want great audio, and put the cheaper ones everywhere else.
The Mini by all accounts is a good smart home controller and sounds good for $99, but Apple didn’t release the Mini until 2020. Apple went years without providing perhaps the more important of the two products. The big HomePod should have never launched without a smaller version.
Amazon sells Alexa Dots for $49, and they work great for smart home uses (and sound terrible for music). Amazon has a bunch of options above that price point as well. None of the Alexa speakers sound anywhere near as good as the HomePod, but they are much more reasonably priced to be a foundation for a smart home system.
Apple was left with this weird no man’s land where they just weren't super competitive in any market and couldn’t really work for a lot of users.
The HomePod did some things well, however, and I don’t want to lose sight of that:
It was probably the best sounding speaker ever made at or near that size, and provides super impressive sound in stereo mode. In many ways the price was justified out of the gate because the sound quality was so good.
It did 360 audio that allowed it to both fill spaces better and to also make it harder to tell where the sound was coming from. Apple was a pioneer in this space, and did it better than anyone.
It looked fantastic and blended into homes well
The HomePod packed a lot of cool tech and an innovative speaker array into its package. In the abstract, it was a really impressive product.
I’ll always marvel at that, but products don’t exist in a vacuum. Products exists within a larger ecosystem of our lives, and the HomePod never quite fit in.
Perhaps a better strategy for Apple would be to start working with other speaker companies to get Siri onto more devices, similar to what Apple is doing with TV makers to get Apple TV and AirPlay 2 onto everything.
Maybe Apple will take another crack at HomePods in a few years, and if they do, I hope they’ll consider the larger ecosystem perspective from the start.
Hey Patrick - What are your thoughts about the recent relaunch? Has Apple learned anything at all?