Monday, June 12, 2017

What's In A Name

I'm going to step off the techno-socialist soapbox I've been using for the past few months.  Instead, I'm going to put on my old marketing gloves, open up the sales toolkit and do a product tear down.  Though, not really.  What I want to tear down is the launch of a product, not the product itself.

The item in question is the new Apple HomePod, announced last week at Apple's World Wide Developer's Conference (WWDC).  The HomePod is a package of tech that is roughly the size of that urn your grandmother keeps on the mantle.  The one full of your grandfather's ashes.  Only this one may be full of something else.  Something smellier.

Market Forces

The smell arises from the market confusion around the HomePod.  Most of the language that I've seen from Apple around this product appears to revolve around the idea that,

It isn't about Siri and home control and automation and lighting and grocery lists and sending messages.  It may be able to do (some of) those things, but the focus is on the music first.  They want to take on Sonos-style connected speakers for sound quality and then add Siri as a bonus.

That may be what Apple wants to focus on, but not the media.  None of the tech blogs or other media outlets latched on to the sound quality.  Sure, they mentioned it, but that was not the focus of their articles.  Instead, they all started to compare it to the Amazon Echo and the Google Home products.  Here's a selected list:

  • CNet - HomePod, Apple's $349 Siri-enabled speaker, hits in December
    • The focus in on Siri first, then the speaker.
  • Time - Apple Finally Unveiled its Amazon Echo Rival
    • There is one, buried in the second paragraph, about positioning this as a speaker first.  Most of the article is about Siri competing with Echo and Google Home.
  • CNN Money - Apple unveils an Amazon Echo competitor
    • This one is about how Apple is going to take on Echo and Home through sound quality.
  • The Verge - Apple announces HomePod speaker to take on Sonos
    • They followed Apple's playbook.  Close to the only one.

So, from where does this confusion stem?  In my mind, from three basic areas: The Name, the Sound and the Price.

The Name

'HomePod.'  It's not a bad name, better than SiriVase or TweetUrn (both my top-of-head creations).  It is supposed to evoke the iPod and the success of that product.  Instead of music for an (i)ndividual, this is music for a home.  It fits in the Apple music product ecosystem and naming conventions.  All Good.

But that's not what people heard.  They heard 'home' first and 'pod' second (because of course!).  And 'home' at Apple has been associated recently with another ecosystem project: HomeKit.  This is Apple's platform for the connected home.  HomeKit is a communication platform, licencing platform and User Interface platform (so many platforms) that Apple has been working on since 2014.  They have not made many products of their own that work with HomeKit (Apple TV, the newer iPhones/iPads, and that's about it), relying instead on other manufacturers to make products that meet their specs.

When the media heard 'HomePod', they did not hear an iPod for the home, they heard a pod for connecting to HomeKit.

The Sound

The second point of confusion comes from the Key Selling Point (KSP).  Every product has one and a lot of research goes into making sure that there is a market for it.  That there is a key demographic, one with disposable income, that wants what is being sold.

For the HomePod, this is Sound Quality.  Not Siri.  The press wants it to be Siri because the Siri/Alexa/OK Google (and poor Cortana) story is more compelling that then Apple/Sonos/Bose story.  Why?  Because quality sound died with Napster.

That was when the MP3 became a bit deal.  Highly compressed, easily shared music files.  The quality was 'good enough' for most people and so died high quality sound.  For Apple to come back and say, 'Hey! We're going to fix sound!" at this late date is not only disingenuous (after all, the iPod was a key player in making MP3s popular), but also misguided.  People don't care about sound quality.

They do care about an accurate, helpful digital assistant.  If it sounds good, then that's a bonus, but the assistant needs to be good first.  Not the speaker.

The Price

So... when I say that no one cares about sound quality, I might have lied a little bit.  There are people who care.  They care a lot.  They buy expensive headphones.  They buy outboard DACs for their phones.  They download FLAC files and fill their homes with tens of thousands of dollars of gear.

They do not spend $349 on a speaker and call it good.

On the other side of the coin, those that do not participate in the above activities are perfectly happy with a $99 Bluetooth speaker and if they want to make it 'smart', then they add an Echo Dot and drop the mic.

They do not spend $349 on a speaker and call it good.

Who does?  Apple fans.  They exist and they will buy the first production run.  Beyond that, I predict that this will languish on shelves.

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