The rumors were true. Apple just announced its own smart home speaker. If the new tech battleground is machine learning and AI, there's just no way the company was going to let Siri concede the home speaker category to Google Assistant and Alexa, which power Google Home and the Amazon Echo, respectively.
First, the brass tacks. It's called HomePod, which sounds a little more like the birthing chamber of alien space babies than a great new living room audio companion. It'll cost $349 when it goes on sale in December. That's almost twice what an Amazon Echo costs ($179) and even more expensive than the Google Home ($129). And you can get it in any color you want as long as it's either black or white.
Apple is aiming the device at music lovers, and promises far better sound quality than those other smart speakers. There are seven tweeters that pump out directional audio and a big custom woofer that Apple says will remain distortion-free as you ramp up the volume. The HomePod uses a six microphone array to not only hear you better, but sense the acoustics of its room placement and intelligently shape audio to provide a bigger sound stage. You can even use two at once and they'll work together. Because why not spend $700 on a pair of smart speakers?
Siri has gained a bunch of new music-oriented features based around natural language recognition rather than specific keywords. You can say "add this to my workout playlist" or "who's playing drums on this track?" Machine learning takes your own preferences into account to play songs that Siri thinks you'll like.
The emphasis appears to be on music (how else to justify a steep price premium for better speakers?), but of course HomePod is a full-featured hub for Siri as a home assistant. You can ask it for news or weather, create reminders, set alarms and timers, get sports scores, and generally all the general knowledge answers you expect from Siri on your iPhone or iPad.
We still have some unanswered questions, of course. The biggest of which is whether HomePod will support multiple users. Siri on your phone is personal, but a box you yell at from across the living room is going to be used by everyone in your house. Google just enabled its Home speaker to work with up to 6 accounts by automatically detecting voices. Apple made no mention of HomePod supporting multiple users… which means your music preferences might get totally skewed by your kids, or your spouse might set reminders that show up on your phone instead of hers.