The HomePod is not an also-ran in the A.I. competition to dominate the home. That’s according to Apple CEO Tim Cook, who dismissed suggestions in a Wednesday interview that the $349 smart speaker, which launched three years after the Amazon Echo, was somehow a response to existing competition. Instead, Cook sees it as carving a new way forward for the product category, one that focuses on audio.
“I wouldn’t say ‘follow,’” Cook told Fast Company writer Robert Safian. “I wouldn’t use that word because that implies we waited for somebody to see what they were doing. That’s actually not what’s happening. What’s happening if you look under the sheets, which we probably don’t let people do, is that we start projects years before they come out. You could take every one of our products–iPod, iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch–they weren’t the first, but they were the first modern one, right?”
It’s true that Apple started the HomePod project years ago. In fact, one report suggested that the speaker started life as an internal project around six years ago. In that time, it moved through several designs, one of which was three feet tall.
But despite launching three years after the competition, the HomePod has been criticized as a less capable version of the Echo and Google Home. Where its competitors can deal with advanced verbal queries, the underlying Siri voice assistant can barely process commands beyond music-related controls.
With the HomePod, Apple has clearly focused on audio-first rather than A.I. commands. Initial reviews have praised the surprisingly strong sound from such a small speaker, which has a seven beam-forming tweeter array with individual drivers, precision acoustic horns, coupled with an Apple-designed woofer and automatic bass equalizer. The HomePod can even scan a room and detect how the waves bump off surfaces, adjusting the output accordingly.
“In each case, if you look at when we started, I would guess that we started much before other people did, but we took our time to get it right,” Cook said. “Because we don’t believe in using our customers as a laboratory. What we have that I think is unique is patience. We have patience to wait until something is great before we ship it.”
Apple is betting big that the value of smart speakers rests in the sound quality.