HomePod Strategy

Apple’s HomePod requires an iOS device, and people are speculating that this is part of a strategy to sell more iPhones and create platform lock-in. I’m not convinced. Some well-worn comparison points:

  • Apple tried this approach with the original iPod and failed. Once the iPod was independent of the Mac, both products became exponentially more successful — lower barrier to purchase for the iPod, halo effect for the Mac.
  • The iPhone required iTunes at first. After years of development effort, it left that requirement behind.
  • I imagine the Apple Watch could someday break free of its dependence on the iPhone. But the technological and UI barriers to moving the Watch from an accessory to a standalone device are significantly larger, so any transition is probably a ways out.

Apple may wield far more power today than they did when they debuted the iPod in 2001, but their business model remains unchanged and very simple: first they try to make best-in-class devices, then they try to sell as many of them as possible.

Requiring an iOS device to use HomePod isn’t profitable lock-in for Apple, it’s a barrier to purchase. If the HomePod is successful enough to stick around, I expect it will follow in the footsteps of the iPod and iPhone and eventually eliminate the requirement of owning a companion Apple device.

Some have pointed out that the Apple Music app is on Android, and so the HomePod’s exclusion of Android must be deliberate and evidence of Apple’s strategy tax. But the Music app doesn’t handle initial HomePod setup. And it sounds as though the HomePod doesn’t make calls, send messages, or sync iCloud data by itself. By requiring an iOS device, the HomePod can lean on iOS system frameworks, as well as the Home App, none of which exist on Android. This is a smart way of launching quicker, while still being able to sell to a large potential audience.

As for where Apple Music fits into all of this, Ben Thompson proposed that the service exists in part to push subscribers to buy the HomePod. I think it exists for a far simpler reason: playing music is a core requirement of any consumer device platform, no different than handling email, calendars, photos, and web browsing. People have expected their computers to be music players since iTunes debuted, and the transition to streaming didn’t change anything, least of all Apple’s belief that depending entirely on third parties like Spotify for core functionality creates long term risk.

The growing number of Apple Music subscribers gives Apple an initial audience to sell the HomePod to, but the service would exist with or without the HomePod. And conversely, like John Gruber hypothesized, nothing precludes the HomePod opening up to third party music apps in the future. Apple probably views their job as making the HomePod the best smart speaker for music so they can sell as many as possible. If one day they can sell to Spotify users with Android phones, I think they will.

Time will tell, I suppose.