To answer the question of Apple’s commitment to smart home tech requires looking beyond the current status quo. It's not hard to notice the emerging devices of Apple smart home products.
After all, the essence of smart home technology is futuristic. Focusing purely on the present is to risk missing the mark.
Right now, most talk of "winning" or "controlling" the smart home devices more or less on voice control. The core emphasis is, of course, the ubiquitous smart speakers powered by digital assistants.
Considered from that standpoint, Apple is already lagging so far behind Amazon and Google that any “race” is effectively only a two-header. One of the co-founders of Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, a leading market research firm, summarizes Apple’s status in the smart speaker segment as follows:
“Apple is not in danger of falling behind. They have already fallen behind.” – Michael R Levin
Amazon launched Alexa back in 2014 with Google Home speakers appearing in late 2016.
By the time Apple brought HomePod to market, Alexa and Google Assistant were already dominant. Microsoft’s Cortana and Samsung’s Bixby languish so far in the distance as to be effectively discounted for the smart speaker market.
When we recently examined Apple’s HomePod, how it shapes up depends mainly on what you want from a smart speaker.
If you’re looking for standout audio performance, there’s little that can be said to knock HomePod. It makes a great alternative, in fact, to more expensive speaker systems. In terms of smart home integration, though, it fails to deliver fully. Siri is still sorely limited, and you don't get anywhere near enough interoperability compared to the opposition. So HomePod is far more speaker than smart.
To consider the overall war for the smart home, we’ll glimpse briefly at what Amazon and Google are doing before examining Apple’s strategy in more depth.
Amazon and Google’s Strategy in The Home
Both these global giants have used smart speakers to push their agendas but to what ends precisely?
- Amazon wants to be the default option when it comes to buying stuff in the smart home. In an important sense, Amazon views the connected home as a hub for e-commerce
- Google positions its services first and foremost and sees the connected home as a hub for information
Neither of these strategies is particularly surprising, and they share two commonalities despite targeting entirely different agendas within the smart home.
- Both Amazon and Google are looking to collect as much user data as humanly possible
- Both Amazon and Google market standalone, voice-controlled smart speakers as replacements for the other screens in your life
Now, Apple has always been a leader rather than a follower. We feel the mistake much make when analyzing Apple’s approach to smart homes is that the Cupertino giant is trying to play catch-up.
Instead, Apple has been doing things somewhat differently.
Apple’s Triple-Pronged Strategy in the Home
If you think of Apple as a design-driven company producing devices to enrich the user’s life in many ways, the connected home is an excellent forum for these tools.
Apple’s strategy to date can be cleaved into three broad areas:
- Establishing an Ecosystem
- Releasing Limited, High-Quality First-Party Hardware Solutions
- Using Third-Party Hardware for Content Distribution
Developing an Ecosystem
Locking consumers into an ecosystem of smart home devices ensures loyalty and drives further sales.
Apple has deliberately sat back and allowed other manufacturers to build devices for HomeKit. While initially sluggish, HomeKit adoption has nevertheless started to pick up gradually.
Devices can be controlled not just by HomePod but also using iPhones and iPads along with Apple Watches. Unlike Amazon and Google, Apple has not been going all-in and promoting voice control as the only – or indeed the best – system for controlling smart devices.
Releasing Limited, High-Quality First-Party Hardware Solutions
While Amazon continues to acquire tech companies wholesale and brings many hardware solutions to the table, Apple is sparing on this front.
Aside from HomePod and Apple TV, first-party presence in the connected home is lacking. Again, we have to assume this is very much by design rather than accidental.
Using Third-Party Hardware for Content Distribution
When it comes to third-party hardware – think smart speakers and smart TVs – Apple uses these to push its content distributions services.
Is This Strategy Working?
By focusing on delivering fewer but better experiences in the smart home, Apple is managing to service its existing customers admirably.
HomePod, especially when paired, offers first-class audio.
Apple TV allows iOS users to watch their content on far larger screens and has exceptionally well received with new developments incoming.
There's a limitation to this overall strategy that bears pointing out.
Apple’s smart home vision in its current iteration is far too dependent on others.
How, then, might this evolve?
How Might Apple Move Forward?
Any predictions on how Apple might move forward in terms of the smart home market are speculative.
One important point to ponder when thinking about how they might revamp their current strategy concerns the role of voice control and control in general.
Is it realistic to expect that in the connected home of the future, you'll be supposed to use your favorite devices less frequently? We're thinking smartphones and wearables here. You can control smart home devices with these already, but the focus has been pushed squarely onto digital assistants. Apple could pivot by continuing to leverage these existing tools for control rather than attempting to fight what looks like a losing digital assistant battle.
As we nudge ever closer to that magical year 2020 and the domotics market continues to mature, consumers will keep demanding more. While opening your smart door lock with voice commands or using a video intercom to answer the front door seemed novel a few years back, now they both come across as reasonably pedestrian.
So what might Apple do to push things in another direction?
Perhaps by incorporating design more, Apple can change the overarching vision of the digital home. Much like the iPhone turned a standard cell phone into a pocket computer, Apple’s design-driven strategy could change the way you interact with devices in your connected home. Maybe the future is not all about voice control after all.
When it comes to first-party solutions, Apple is unlikely to begin cranking out smart home devices and appliances suddenly. Instead, there is likely to be a continued doubling down on which tools can bolster user experience most effectively.
One thing is relatively certain.
Apple is highly unlikely to start taking a mass-market approach when it comes to smart home tech. By playing to its strengths along with its existing profit centers, changes are in the post at the hands of the new hire now in the Apple fold.
What Is The Role of Apple’s New Hire, Sam Jadallah?
Sam Jadallah was the founder and CEO of Otto, a company that went under before it could bring a $700 smart lock successfully to market.
While some might question whether that track record bodes well for his new role Working on Home at Apple, that smart lock was precisely the type of gadget we’ve come to expect from Apple: upscale, luxurious, precision-engineered, but still somehow low key.
Despite this new blood, Apple is likely to remain extremely selective in terms of developing first-party smart devices. Jadalah’s role will be to revamp Apple’s smart home strategy in the broader sense.
Jadalah posted on Medium back in 2017 about "The End of The Connected Home.”
Many of the points he makes in this post would suggest he’ll fit in perfectly at Apple.
Apple Smart Home Products
He describes products like a basic smart lock as “obvious products,” gadgets that take the route of least resistance to solve a given problem without any frills. He elaborates that a visible product can be a barrier against building new products that create new experiences entirely rather than just solving straightforward issues.
Jadalah goes on to differentiate between the connected home and the digital home.
In his view, the prime focus of the connected home is on simple gadgets and connectivity this sums up a large portion of the smart home market to date, so how does he view its evolution?
Well, he suggests that products for this new generation of a smart home need to remain lasered in on the digital experience while also being connected, upgradeable, open, and designed in context with the house.
He rounds out this brief post by suggesting that, although the barrier to entry for creating this new type of product remains high, the maturity of technologies like smartphones, Bluetooth and WiFi along with more trusting homeowners ready to embrace these new devices mean the time is ripe for a new era in the smart home.
Jadallah's vision shows design playing a far more pivotal role in smart home tech. Expect him to be working closely with Apple’s designers as well as engineers, and expect a change in smart home products some time soon.
And after all, it’s that constant change that keeps the relatively young smart home market so exciting.
It could be that Jadallah will look on as Apple has another crack at HomePod and Apple TV – there’s some new software just released for HomePod and many rumors flying around about new models – or he could end up shepherding a bold new direction for Apple. We strongly feel it will be the latter and we’re excited to see how Apple pushes forwards.
Although connected homes in 2019 are stuffed with tens of millions of smart speakers, by no means all are being used for voice control.
The time is ripe for a change in direction not just for Apple, but also for smart home tech in general. We can see signs of this with the increasing emergence of robots. Watch out for our forthcoming study of LG’s CLOi range for more on that.
If we think about the ultimate winner in the race for control of the smart home, the prize will go to the company most able to seize our time and attention. If you're in a room packed with third-party devices yet spending most of your time using your iPhone, which company is winning?
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