Apple's answer to the Amazon Echo has a critical flaw

HomePod, Apple’s new smart speaker, is clearly targeted at Amazon’s wildly successful Echo. But it comes up short in one huge way: apps.

With Amazon’s Echo, you have your choice of thousands of them. With HomePod, not so much.

Apple unveiled HomePod, which looks like an electronic marshmallow, on Monday at its WWDC event in San Jose. Like the Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod is a speaker that has a voice-controlled digital assistant built in. It will play music, answer your questions, set reminders, and so on.

Addressing Apple’s digital assistant, you’ll be able to say, “Hey Siri, play Busta Rhymes’ ‘Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See,'” and you’ll be jamming. Or you could ask Siri to give you directions, or numerous other things. You’ll generally be able to do the same stuff you’d do with Siri now on your phone, but via a home speaker.

There are several significant differences between Amazon’s device and Apple’s newly-announced competitor, including price, shape, and more. But I’m going to focus on just one here: what you can do with it.

Amazon’s Echo is designed for flexibility. You’re a Pandora devotee? Great! Hook up your account to the Echo, then simply ask Alexa — Amazon’s equivalent of Siri — to play whatever you want. You could play out that same scenario for a wide variety of music services, including Spotify Amazon’s own music service.

In the case of Apple’s HomePod, though, you’ll only have one choice: Apple Music.

Want directions? They’re coming from Apple Maps. Want access to your calendar? Better hope you’re using Apple’s calendar application. That same situation will hold true for any number of things you might want the HomePod to do for you. It’s a device intended for people who live in Apple’s walled garden.

Technically speaking, you’ll be able to play any music you want on the HomePod. It will act as a wireless speaker, so you’ll be able to blast whatever music you want from your phone to HomePod using Apple’s AirPlay technology.

But that’s not what makes smart speakers like HomePod so compelling, is it? You’re supposed to be able to just speak to them and get instant results — no phone required.

And HomePod can do that — some of the time, and only with Apple services. That’s a big bummer!

Apple could eventually open the HomePod up to outside developers, much as it did the iPhone and, eventually, Apple TV. But it’s not clear if it will. For now there doesn’t appear to a toolkit that third-party programmers can use to create apps for the gadget or any way to distribute them to consumers, and Apple hasn’t said anything on the subject (we’ve asked). And with Apple pushing its own music service these days, it doesn’t have a big incentive to open its new home speaker system to rivals.

But because the HomePod is largely limited to Apple Music and Apple’s other services, it doesn’t compare well with the Echo, especially when you factor in the fact that at $US350, Apple’s home speaker will cost $US170 more than Amazon’s. For that price, consumers area likely to find HomePod just too confining.

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