Apple’s new HomePod is a very interesting device. But it’s overpriced, and when it sounds good, it’s great; but it doesn’t always sound good.
The HomePod mini is not a mini version of the HomePod, but a different device entirely. At the same time, it’s the cheapest Apple device that works on its own. It needs the cloud for Siri, and for Apple Music, of course, but at $99, it’s the least expensive Apple product that is not an accessory.
It’s worth considering this when thinking about what the HomePod mini is for. It’s not for music; it’s for the smart home. Apple is way behind Amazon in the smart speaker / smart home space, and, even though just about every Apple user has Siri in their pocket or on their wrist, having a device in fixed locations in the home may lead to more use of Siri and specifically smart home products.
Note the four key points that Apple presents on its website for the HomePod mini:
- Room-filling sound.
- An intelligent assistant.
- Control your smart home.
- Private and secure.
I think it’s safe to discount the first; the HomePod mini is really mini: it’s 3.3″ / 84mm tall. That’s a tad more than 1/2 the height of my iPhone 11. It’s not mini, it’s tiny. It will play music, and sound like an inexpensive Bluetooth speaker, but nothing like the HomePod or other good standalone speakers.
The second point is just another way of saying that it works with Siri. But everyone with an iPhone, iPad, or Apple Watch already has Siri. Perhaps that’s not enough.
But it’s the third point, “Control your smart home” that is the clincher: this is where Apple is aiming. In the presentation of the HomePod mini, Apple showed a family in a cut-away house on a stage, demonstrating how this device can control the home, and help communicate within the family. (The new Intercom feature is quite interesting.) On the HomePod mini product page, there’s a screenshot of the Home app, with a new Discover tab. This tab is not yet available in the app, and will presumably be added when the HomePod mini is released. It will offer “recommendations on top‑rated accessories that work with HomePod mini, and connect to the Apple Store app for additional details and effortless shopping.”
You can, of course, control your smart home with your iPhone; the HomePod mini is just an interface. But it serves an important purpose: it can be a HomeKit hub, and it is the cheapest device that can serve this purpose. While you don’t need this to control simple smart home devices, you do need it to share your devices across your family, or to control them remotely. Currently, you need either a HomePod, an Apple TV, or an iPad to have a HomeKit hub. The first two devices set themselves up automatically, and you have to turn on specific settings on an iPad for it to work. But the iPad must remain in your home, and not run out of power, in order for it to serve this purpose.
Apple is clearly banking on the smart home as their Next Big Product. While it’s not a “product” as such, and certainly will not rival the iPhone, if Apple can get a large number of users to buy into the smart home idea, there’s lots of money to be made. The smart home needs a killer app to take off; so far, it’s been Amazon’s Alexa, but lots of people don’t trust Amazon. Hence the fourth point: “Private and secure.” I’ve heard from several people already, who are Apple users and have Alexa devices, who are going to buy two or three of these, and ditch Alexa.
Back to the price; $99 is the cost of some of Apple’s watch bands. It’s the cost of the Magic Keyboard. It’s cheaper than the Apple TV. It’s the cheapest product that, on its own, actually does something.
This isn’t to say that it’s cheap; compare it with Amazon’s Echo Dot, which you could get for $19 on Prime Day. That product is a loss-leader to get you into the Alexa platform. Apple would never sell the HomePod mini that cheaply, but perhaps we’ll see it discounted as a bundle with other devices, or why not even for free when you buy, say, a new Mac?
The HomePod mini is a Trojan horse. If Apple succeeds in selling enough of these, they can get a strong foothold in the smart home.