Apple unveils 'HomePod' speaker, first new product in years

Apple is hoping a new smart home speaker will strike a chord with music lovers - the latest test of the iPhone maker's ability to redefine markets originally staked out by its rivals.

Amazon has first-mover advantage. Shipments of intelligent home speakers surged almost 600 per cent year-over-year to 4.2 million units in the fourth quarter, with Amazon taking about 88 per cent share and Google 10 percent, according to consultant Strategy Analytics. It has multi-channel echo cancellation, real-time acoustic modeling and more.

Similar to Siri, the iOS based voice assistant, being able to bark orders at the device is just a bonus. Google, meanwhile, previewed new speaker features such as hands-free phone calling during its software conference last month. It's since improved, and Google seems committed for the long haul, but it's struggling to make up lost ground.

Apple Inc kicked off its annual developer conference on Monday by unveiling a "Siri face" for the Apple Watch that will enable the voice-activated assistant to provide users with information like commute times for upcoming appointments.

Apple said the HomePod uses an algorithm that analyzes music nonstop and tunes low frequencies to avoid distortions. Its smart home platform, HomeKit, has received regular updates over the past few years, from support for new types of products to a built-in home control app on iOS. The HomePod will change all that, using a combination of high-quality audio and "spatial awareness" tech to deliver noticeably better sound than its competition.

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"Apple is smart to frame the HomePod as a music-centric and audio-centric device rather than just another smart speaker or another home for Siri", said Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson.

So, if audio is so important to the HomePod - and will justify that whopping $349 price tag - how does it really sound? Created to work with an Apple Music® subscription for access to over 40 million songs, HomePod provides deep knowledge of personal music preferences and tastes and helps users discover new music. Cook is aiming to double services revenue, which also includes products like iCloud and Apple Music, to around US$50bil (RM212.85bil) by 2020.

There's two ways of looking at this. That's in stark contrast to Alexa and even Google Home, which are marketed as problem solving devices.

Siri, meanwhile, is getting a new voice. It delivers powerful sounds and adapts to its surroundings. Perhaps that focus will shift as it builds more solutions with Siri baked in or looks toward third-parties to integrate the functionality into their own premium smart home solutions like Amazon has begun to do with Alexa. Siri also has a new screen in the Apple Watch which presents data and information that may echo earlier behaviour at a similar time of day or the week. After all, there were computers with graphical user interfaces before the Macintosh, MP3 players before the iPod, smartphones before the iPhone.

Did Apple miss a trick announcing HomePod without demonstrating the vision? Apple Music, despite years of work, still lags behind Spotify and was recently, according to one analysis, surpassed by Amazon Prime Music (helped, no doubt, by the rise of the Echo). In the next six months up to launch Amazon and Google won't be standing still, so Apple will have to show how HomePod can reliably do more than name that drummer. It was a disaster and quickly pulled from store shelves.

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