At last year's Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple announced the HomePod, its first Siri-powered smart speaker. After some delays, the HomePod finally began shipping in February this year, but was met with a mixed reception. While most reviews praised the HomePod’s automatic acoustic calibration and sound quality, its steep $349 price tag and Siri’s underwhelming functionality compared to Alexa's and Google's own assistants left a lot to be desired.
The HomePod’s lack of interoperability with non-iOS devices (for set up and configuration) and third-party streaming services was also universally criticized. The ability to pair two HomePods in stereo mode, which was touted at the announcement also still unavailable almost three months after launch. Apple was silent about its HomePod sales numbers during its recent earnings call, which has led many to believe that in spite of strong initial momentum, demand has stagnated, and HomePods aren't exactly flying off the shelves.
In fact, a recent report by Strategy Analytics estimated only about 600,000 HomePods shipped (not sold) during Q1-2018, which isn’t great. In contrast, Google and Amazon have effectively penetrated the global smart speaker market with their own, as well as third-party Alexa/Google Assistant-powered devices.
Now, a Taiwanese supply chain source is claiming that Apple may be mulling a cheaper, Beats-branded version of the HomePod priced at $199, with a view to gain some much-needed market share. This is perfectly plausible, given that both Amazon and Google now have an entire array of devices starting as low as $49 (for the Echo Dot and Home Mini), going all the way up to $229 for the Echo Show or $399 for the Google Home Max. The popularity of the Beats brand and a lower price tag could allow Apple to effectively differentiate its line up in an increasingly competitive market for smart speakers.
Rest assured, this differentiation will bring with it a reduced feature set compared to the HomePod – perhaps a pure AirPlay 2-powered device without Siri? That wouldn't be a terrible tradeoff, given Siri in its current iteration isn’t really capable of doing very much anyway. WWDC ’18 is only a few weeks away, but until then, let's take this with a heap of salt.