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Main article: HomePod

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The time is right for Apple to buy Sonos

19:20 | 26 September

It’s been a busy couple of months for smart speakers – Amazon released a bunch just this week, including updated versions of its existing Echo hardware and a new Echo Studio with premium sound. Sonos also introduced its first portable speaker with Bluetooth support, the Sonos Move, and in August launched its collaboration collection with Ikea. Meanwhile, Apple didn’t say anything about the HomePod at its latest big product event – an omission that makes it all the more obvious the smart move would be for Apple to acquire someone who knows what they’re doing in this category: Sonos.

Highly aligned

From an outsider perspective, it’s hard to find two companies who seem more philosophically aligned than Sonos and Apple when it comes to product design and business model. Both are clearly focused on delivering premium hardware (at a price point that’s generally at the higher end of the mass market) and both use services to augment and complement the appeal of their hardware, even if Apple’s been shifting that mix a bit with a fast-growing services business.

Sonos, like Apple, clearly has a strong focus and deep investment in industrial design, and puts a lot of effort into truly distinctive product look and feel that stands out from the crowd and is instantly identifiable once you know what to look for. Even the company’s preference for a mostly black and white palette feels distinctly Apple – at least Apple leading up to the prior renaissance of multicolour palettes for some of its more popular devices, including the iPhone.

airplay2 headerThen from a technical perspective, Apple and Sonos seem keen to work together – and the results of their collaboration has been great for consumers who use both ecosystems. AirPlay 2 support is effectively standard on all modern Sonos hardware, and really Sonos is essentially the default choice already for anyone looking to do AirPlay 2-based multiform audio, thanks to the wide range of options available in different form factors and at different price points. Sonos and Apple also offer an Apple Music integration for Sonos’ controller app, and now you can use voice control via Alexa to play Apple Music, too.

Competitive moves

The main issue that an Apple-owned Sonos hasn’t made much sense before now, at least from Sonos’ perspective, is that the speaker maker has reaped the benefits of being a platform that plays nice with all the major streaming service providers and virtual assistants. Recent Sonos speakers offer both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant support, for instance, and Sonos’ software has connections with virtually every major music and audio streaming service available.

What’s changed, especially in light of Amazon’s slew of announcements this week, is that competitors like Amazon are looking more like they want to own more of the business that currently falls within Sonos’ domain. Amazon’s Echo Studio is a new premium speaker that directly competes with Sonos in a way that previous Echos really haven’t, and the company has consistently been releasing better-sounding versions of its other, more affordable Echos. It’s also been rolling out more feature-rich multi-room audio features, including wireless surround support for home theater use – all things squarely in the Sonos wheelhouse.

alexa echo amazon 9250064

For now, Sonos and Amazon seem to be comfortably in ‘frenemy’ territory, but increasingly, it doesn’t seem like Amazon is content to leave them their higher-end market segment when it comes to the speaker hardware category. Amazon still probably will do whatever it can to maximize use of Alexa, on both its own and third-party devices, but it also seems to be intent on strengthening and expanding its own first-party device lineup, with speakers as low-hanging fruit.

Other competitors, including Google and Apple, don’t seem to have had as much success with their products that line up as direct competitors to Sonos, but the speaker-maker also faces perennial challenges from hi-fi and audio industry stalwarts, and also seems likely to go up against newer device makers with audio ambitions and clear cost advantages like Anker, too.

Missing ingredients/work to be done

Of course, there are some big challenges and potential red flags that stand in the way of Apple ever buying Sonos, or of that resulting union working out well for consumers. Sonos works so well because it’s service-agnostic, for instance, and they key to its success with recent products seems to also be integration with the smart home assistants that people seem to actually want to use most – namely Alexa and Google Assistant.

Under Apple ownership, it’s highly possible that Apple Music would at least get preferential treatment, if not become the lone streaming service on offer. It’s probable that Siri would replace Alexa and Assistant as the only virtual voice service available, and almost unthinkable that Apple would continue to support competing services if it did make this buy.

That said, there’s probably significant overlap between Apple and Sonos customers already, and as long as there was some service flexibility (in the same way there is for streaming competitors on iOS devices, including Spotify) then being locked into Siri probably wouldn’t sting as much. And it would serve to give Siri the foothold at home that the HomePod hasn’t managed to provide. Apple would also be better incentivized to work on improving Siri’s performance as a general home-based assistant, which would ultimately be good for Apple ecosystem customers.

Another smart adjacency

Apple’s bigger acquisitions are few and for between, but the ones it does make are typically obviously adjacent to its core business. A Sonos acquisition has a pretty strong precedent in the Beats purchase Apple made in 2014, albeit without the strong motivator of providing the underlying product and relationship basis for launching a streaming service.

What Sonos is, however, is an inversion of the historical Apple model of using great services to sell hardware. The Sonos ecosystem is a great, easy to use, premium-feel means of making the most of Apple’s music and video streaming services (and brand new games subscription offering), all of which are more important than ever to the company as it diversifies from its monolithic iPhone business.

I’m hardly the first to suggest an Apple-Sonos deal makes sense: J.P. Morgan analyst Samik Chatterjee suggested it earlier this year, in fact. From my perspective, however, the timing has never been better for this acquisition to take place, and the motivations never stronger for either party involved.

Disclosure: I worked briefly for Apple in its communications department in 2015-2016, but the above analysis is based entirely on publicly available information, and I hold no stock in either company.

 


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Apple’s HomePod set to gain some long overdue functionality this fall

21:07 | 11 September

It’s no secret that the HomePod’s software updates have been a bit sluggish, which made it all the more alarming that the device was barely touched on in yesterday’s Apple event.

Well, even as pre-launch promises are still getting ironed out, by the fall Apple says that its home smart speaker will be gaining new functionality including multi-user support, live radio and a relaxing “ambient sounds” mode, according to an updated product page on the company’s website. Some of this functionality was detailed at Apple’s June services event.

Multi-user support is “coming this fall” assumedly after the release of iOS13. This is one of the most egregious missing features from the device at the moment, something both Alexa and Google Home devices have pushed forward more quickly on.

The product page for the HomePod details that multi-user voice recognition will allow the device to recognize up to six individual voices. This feature will allow users to ask the device to play music catered to their interests while also asking the device to carry out commands related to personal data like recent iMessages or upcoming meetings.

The live radio features is part of iOS13’s functionality and will be arriving at the end of the month with support for iHeartRadio, Radio.com, and TuneIn. More than 100,000 radio stations will be available to users who ask Siri to pop on a station.

Alongside the new radio stations, in the fall Apple will be adding a relaxing Ambient Sounds mode “featuring the soothing sounds of ocean waves, forest birds, rainstorms, and more.”

Apple hasn’t proven the HomePod to be all that capable in meeting consumer-facing software update deadlines so we’ll see how that goes, but they’re saying all of these features will arrive by fall.

 


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Amazon said to be launch new Echo speaker with premium sound next year

15:42 | 12 July

Amazon is reportedly looking to offer an Echo that more directly competes with high-end speakers like the Sonos line of device of Apple’s HomePod, according to a new report from Bloomberg. The speaker should be released sometime next year, according to the sources cited in the report, and will be somewhat wider than the existing Echo models (perhaps more akin to the Echo Sub, pictured above), packing in four separate tweeters to help boost the song quality.

It will, of course, also offer access to the company’s Alexa voice assistant, which is what has propelled Echo to its current level of success. Bloomberg notes that it’s also likely to work better for the high-fidelity audio version of Amazon’s music streaming service that has previously been reported to be in the works.

This could make for an interesting working relationship with some of Amazon’s existing partners, including Sonos, since it sounds like this will be a direct competitor. Newer Sonos speakers, including the Sonos One and Sonos Beam, support Alexa voice commands out of the box. While both Echo devices and Sonos support multi-room streaming and speaker grouping, Sonos has always had far superior audio quality when compared to the Echo hardware – albeit at a premium price.

Sonos, meanwhile, is gearing up to launch speakers powered by its technology with Ikea, with the Symfonisk line that is set for release in August. Smart speakers are a busy space with a lot of money and interest from many companies big and small, but Amazon has a lot working in its favor if it can also produce something that wins on high-quality audio at a reasonable price.

 


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AirPods and HomePod get some new capabilities

21:33 | 3 June

Apple’s audio hardware didn’t get a ton of love at WWDC but it didn’t go unmentioned, here’s what’s coming to your HomePod and Airpods.

For AirPods users, Siri will now be able to read incoming iMessages to you as soon as they arrive on your phone and allow you to respond instantly without bothering with “Hey Siri…”

The company is introducing a feature that will allow you to instantly share a song you’re listening to from one iPhone to another. It doesn’t seem to be AirPods specific, but wireless headphones will probably make this feel ritzier.

Handoff is coming to HomePod, and it’s coming about in a very physical way. If you are walking in the door and want to move audio from your iPhone to the HomePod, now you can just bring your iPhone close to it and it will transfer the audio, this works in the opposite direction as well.

One far overdue update is multi-user support finally coming to the HomePod so you’ll be able to play music that’s unique to you and get info like iMessages, Reminders and Notes as well.


 

 


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Daily Crunch: Apple cuts HomePod prices

19:30 | 4 April

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Apple’s HomePod gets a $50 price cut

Announced in mid-2017 and released in early 2018, the Siri-powered product brought a very Apple approach to the category dominated by Amazon and Google, with premium sound and design at a premium price of $349.

The $50 price drop puts the product under $300 — though it’s still pretty steep, so far as the category goes. Apple has confirmed with TechCrunch that this is a permanent price cut.

2. Researchers find 540M Facebook user records on exposed servers

According to the researchers’ write-up, Mexico-based digital media company Cultura Colectiva left more than 540 million records — including comments, likes, reactions, account names and more — stored on the Amazon S3 storage server without a password, allowing anyone to access the data.

3. Yahoo spin-out Altaba is selling its entire Alibaba stake and closing down

Bye-bye, Altaba. The Yahoo spin-out created to house Yahoo’s lucrative stake in Alibaba and Yahoo Japan announced today that it will sell its shares and shut up shop.

Photo: Hero Images/Getty Images

4. Amazon Alexa launches its first HIPAA-compliant medical skills

Following a trial of Amazon’s smart speakers in patients’ rooms at Cedars-Sinai, the company announced an invite-only program allowing select developers to create and launch HIPAA-compliant healthcare skills for Alexa.

5. GrubMarket raises $25M more for its farm-to-table food delivery service

GrubMarket works with smaller farms and other suppliers to sell and deliver their items by way of its online store both to consumers and to businesses — including restaurants, stores and food startups.

6. MIT cuts working relationship with Huawei and ZTE over alleged sanction violations

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced it will suspend collaborations, including research projects and funding, with Huawei Technologies and ZTE, two Chinese tech companies fighting with the U.S. government over alleged sanction violations.

7. SiriusXM and Pandora launch Pandora NOW, the first Pandora station that streams on both services

On Pandora, the new experience will appear as an interactive station and playlist, while SiriusXM subscribers will be able to access Pandora NOW on Channel 3. This is the first time a music experience has launched on both platforms.

 


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Apple’s HomePod gets a $50 price cut

16:36 | 4 April

The HomePod got a healthy little price drop today, bringing Apple’s premium smart speaker down to $299. Announced in mid-2017 and released in early-2018, the Siri-powered product brought a very Apple approach to the category dominated by Amazon and Google, with premium sound and design at a very premium price of $349.

The $50 price drop, first noted by 9 to 5 Mac, puts the product under $300 — though it’s still pretty steep, so far as the category goes. The product got an even steeper discount to $249 from a number of third-party retailers over the holiday. Apple has confirmed with TechCrunch that this price cut is a permanent one.

$299 was formerly the refurbished price for the device through Apple. That’s since dropped to $259, though both versions of the HomePod are currently sold out on the site. All of this, naturally, has led to speculation that a sequel could be on the way.

HomePod 2 rumors have been swirling around for some time now, but we haven’t had too much insight on that front, beyond a a few fun recently discovered patents that bring more functionality to the speaker’s top display.

 


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Over a quarter of U.S. adults now own a smart speaker, typically an Amazon Echo

20:29 | 8 March

U.S. smart speaker owners grew 40 percent over 2018 to now reach 66.4 million – or 26.2 percent of the U.S. adult population – according to a new report from Voicebot.ai and Voicify released this week, which detailed adoption patterns and device market share. The report also reconfirmed Amazon Echo’s lead, noting the Alexa-powered smart speaker grew to a 61 percent market share by the end of last year – well above Google Home’s 24 percent share.

These findings fall roughly in line with other analysts’ reports on smart speaker market share in the U.S. However, because of varying methodology, they don’t all come back with the exact same numbers.

For example, in December 2018, eMarketer reported the Echo had accounted for nearly 67 percent of all U.S. smart speaker sales in 2018. Meanwhile, CIRP last month put Echo further ahead with a 70 percent share of the installed base in the U.S.

Though the percentages differ – the overall trend is that Amazon Echo remains the smart speaker to beat.

While on the face of things this appears to be great news for Amazon, Voicebot’s report did note that Google Home has been closing the gap with Echo in recent months.

Amazon Echo’s share dropped nearly 11 percent over 2018 while Google Home made up for just over half that decline with a 5.5 percent gain, and “other” devices making up the rest. This latter category, which includes devices like Apple’s HomePod and Sonos One, grew last year to now account for 15 percent of the market.

That said, the Sonos One has Alexa built in, so it may not be as bad for Amazon as the numbers alone seem to indicate. After all, Amazon is selling its Echo devices at cost or even a loss to snag more market share. The real value over time will be in controlling the ecosystem.

The growth in smart speakers is part of a larger trend towards voice computing and smart voice assistants – like Siri, Bixby and Google Assistant – which are often accessed on smartphones.

A related report from Juniper Research last month estimated there will be 8 billion digital voice assistants in use by 2023, up from the 2.5 billion in use at the end of 2018. This is due to the increased use of smartphone assistants as well as the smart speaker trend, the firm said.

Voicebot’s report also saw how being able to access voice assistance on multiple platforms was helping to boost usage numbers.

It found that smart speaker owners used their smartphone’s voice assistant more than those who didn’t have a smart speaker in their home. It seems consumers get used to being able to access their voice assistants across platforms – now that Siri has made the jump to speakers and Alexa to phones, for instance.

The full report is available on Voicebot.ai’s website here.

 


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Report: Smart speaker adoption in U.S. reaches 66M units, with Amazon leading

18:54 | 5 February

Smart speakers had a good holiday. Amazon already said its Echo Dot outsold all other items on its site this holiday season, which hinted towards the sizable growth for the voice-powered speaker market. Today, research firm CIRP is reporting the U.S. installed base for speakers grew to 66 million units in December 2018, up from 53 million in the September 2018 quarter and just 37 million in December 2017.

However, holiday sales didn’t have much impact on the market shares for the various speaker brands, the firm found.

Amazon Echo devices still lead the U.S. market with a 70 percent share of the installed base, followed by Google Home at 24 percent, then Apple HomePod at 6 percent, the report said.

“Holiday shoppers helped the smart speaker market take off again,” said Josh Lowitz, Partner and Co-Founder of CIRP, in a statement. “Relative market shares have remained fairly stable, with Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod accounting for consistent shares over the past few quarters. Amazon and Google both have broad model lineups, ranging from basic to high-end, with even more variants from Amazon. Apple, of course, has only its premium-priced HomePod, and likely won’t gain significant share until it offers an entry-level product closer to Echo Dot and Home mini,” Lowitz added.

Also of interest is that some portion of those buying a smart speaker for their home already own one. According to CIRP, 35 percent of smart speaker owners now have multiple devices, as of December 2018. That’s up from 18 percent in December 2017.

This figure is key to the device markers’ larger strategies, because it means that once a company is able to get that first sale, the consumer may return to buy more devices from the same vendor.

Amazon had gained an early advantage here, initially convincing more users to buy another speaker compared with Google Home users. A year ago, almost double the number of Echo users had multiple devices, versus Google Home owners. But Google is catching up, and now about a third of Echo and Google Home users have multiple devices.

It’s worth noting that CIRP data – like much that’s produced by market research firms – isn’t always going to match up exactly with other firms’ estimates and forecasts.

For example, Strategy Analytics this fall said that Amazon’s Echo market share in the U.S. was 63 percent, to Google’s 17 percent and Apple HomePod’s 4 percent. Meanwhile, eMarketer’s 2019 U.S. forecast predicts Amazon Echo will end up with around a 63.3 percent market share this year, versus Google Home’s 31 percent, with all others like HomePod and Sonos, reaching 12 percent.

That said, the broad strokes across all reports point to the same general findings – that Amazon is leading the U.S. market by a wide margin, and while that margin may be shrinking, it’s not going away soon.

 


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Apple HomePod comes to China at $400 amid iPhone sales woes

07:49 | 14 January

Apple is finally launching HomePod in China, but the timing is tricky as the premium device will have to wrestle with local competitors and a slowing economy. The firm said over the weekend that its smart speaker will be available in Mainland China and Hong Kong starting January 18, adding to a list of countries where it has entered including US, UK, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Mexico and Spain.

The Amazon Echo competitor, which launched in mid-2017, is already available to Chinese buyers through third-party channels like “daigou”, or shopping agents who bring overseas products into China. What separates the new model is that it supports Mandarin, the official language on Mainland China and Cantonese, which is spoken in Hong Kong and China’s most populated province Guangdong. Previously, Chinese-speaking users would have to converse with HomePod in English.

A main selling point of HomePod is its focus on music, so the China version comes with Airplay support of a range of local music streaming apps like Tencent’s QQ Music for Mainland users and JOOX which is more popular in Hong Kong.

In its home market, HomePod remains an underdog with 5 percent market share while Amazon Echo and Google Home command 66 percent and 29 percent, respectively.

The question is how many Chinese shoppers are willing to shell out 2799 yuan, or $414, for the Siri-controlled speaker. A host of much cheaper options from local giants are available, such as Alibaba’s Tmall Genie, Xiaomi’s Mi AI and several models from Baidu.

Analysts have cited relatively high price — on top of a softening economy — as a major culprit for iPhones’ low sales in China, which have prompted Apple to lower its quarterly revenue forecast for the first time in over a decade and Chinese retailers to slash iPhone prices. It remains to see how Chinese shoppers react to HomePod, which is already about 17 percent higher than its normal $349 price in the US.

 


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Smart speakers hit critical mass in 2018

18:15 | 28 December

We already know Alexa had a good Christmas – the app shot to the top of the App Store over the holidays, and the Alexa service even briefly crashed from all the new users. But Alexa, along with other smart speaker devices like Google Home, didn’t just have a good holiday — they had a great year, too. The smart speaker market reached critical mass in 2018, with around 41 percent of U.S. consumers now owning a voice-activated speaker, up from 21.5 percent in 2017.

According to a series of reports from RBC Capital Markets analysts released in December, the near doubling of the adoption rate for smart speakers in the U.S. was driven by growth in both Alexa and Google Home devices, while Apple’s HomePod played only a small role.

The firm found that U.S. penetration of Alexa-enabled devices reached 31 percent this year, compared with 41 percent overall for smart speakers.

It also forecast that Alexa would generate $18 billion to $19 billion in total revenue by 2021 – or ~5 percent of Amazon’s revenue –  through a combination of device sales, incremental voice shopping sales, and other platform revenues. In the U.S., there are now over 100 million Alexa-enabled devices installed – a key milestone for Alexa to become a “critical mass platform,” the report noted.

RBC additionally called out Amazon’s progress with Alexa’s development, with launches like Alexa Guard, which listens for break-ins and smoke detector alarms; plus new features like local voice control for when the internet is down; location-based reminders; advanced routines; email integrations; expanded calling options; and many others.

Alexa’s third-party app ecosystem also grew in 2018, with 150 percent year-over-year growth in skills to reach over 60,000 total Alexa skills by year-end. That’s up from 40,000 skills in May; 25,000 in Q3 2017; and just 5,000 two years ago.

Google Home also gained traction in 2018, with U.S. penetration for Google devices growing to 23 percent, up from 8 percent in 2017. Each household owns around 1.7 devices, which leads a Google Home install base of around 43 million in the U.S., and around 9 million in other Google Home markets, the forecast said.

However, the report doesn’t see as much revenue coming in from Google Home over the next few years, compared with Alexa. Instead, it estimates that Google Home generated $3.4 billion in revenue this year, and will grow that to $8.2 billion by 2021.

But combined with Google’s other hardware products like Pixel, Nest, and Chromecast, the hardware suite will have generated approximately $8.8 billion in 2018, and will grow to $19.6 billion in 2021.

This is the first year the analysts asked about Apple’s HomePod in the consumer survey, and they found its share of the U.S. smart speaker market remains small. Amazon has a 66 percent share to Google’s 29 percent. HomePod had 5 percent, it said.

 


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