The notion of Apple’s “walled garden” ecosystem of products precedes even the iPhone. For as long as the company has existed, Apple products have worked best with other Apple products and that’s been that. But the new HomePod speaker, which is going on sale today, ratchets this commitment up another notch. If you thought you were locked inside the Apple ecosystem before, buying a HomePod is like adding an iron ball to those chains.
The HomePod costs $349. That’s a high price for the vast majority of people, and it pretty much guarantees that you’ll be using the HomePod as the primary listening device in your home. The HomePod has voice control for music playback, but you’ll have to be tapping into Apple’s own Apple Music, iTunes tracks, or iTunes Match to take full advantage of Siri. Alternatively, you can use AirPlay from an Apple device, which gets you access to services like Spotify but with drastically simplified play/pause voice control. In any and all cases, to get the most out of the HomePod, you absolutely must have a subscription to an Apple music service and an iOS device to set the speaker up.
Obvious and standard Apple practice, right? Well, hold on. While it’s true that Apple has always privileged its devices and services ahead of others, the company’s track record has been a bit more mixed. As of right now, you can use an iPhone while relying on almost zero Apple apps. When I set up an iPhone, I download all my Google services like Maps and Keep, swap Safari with Chrome, and rely on Dropbox instead of iCloud. Apple even made a change to allow uninstalling its default apps if you’re not a willing user of them. On the Mac front, you can turn your MacBook into a Chromebook by doing most of your work in the Chrome browser or you can Boot Camp into a Windows installation. Even the AirPods work with any Bluetooth source, albeit not as frictionlessly well as they do with an iPhone.
My point is that purchasing a HomePod is nothing at all like purchasing a Sonos One, an Amazon Echo, or even a Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 90. This is both a speaker and an anchor locking you in place exactly where you are — because to even consider a HomePod you must already have at least one foot inside Apple’s ecosystem. The HomePod just reinforces the locks on the gates outside, because once your $349 (or $698 or $1,396, depending on the number you install in your home in the years to come) is invested, you’ll be quite unlikely to make any future choices that conflict with that purchase. Maybe you’re an iPhone user that was equivocating about making the jump to a Google Pixel for the superior camera, maybe the Samsung Galaxy S9’s headphone jack spoke to you, or maybe you miss your Spotify playlists. Whatever, you just bought the Apple speaker and now you have to live within the confines of the world that Apple has set up for you.
It’s not as linear a relationship as “my next phone will be an iPhone because I already own a HomePod,” but it’s pretty close. Apple has shown itself a master of creating synergistic effects between its products, with the Apple Watch, AirPods, Mac, and now HomePod each feeding the demand for an iPhone user to remain an iPhone user. The striking thing to me today is just how aggressive the Apple separatism is with the HomePod: without even basic Bluetooth streaming, the HomePod is, to borrow a famous Apple line, unapologetically Apple-centric.
This could all change with time, as Apple might open up the HomePod with proper Spotify support to entice more users, but there’s no guarantee. We’re still waiting on FaceTime to become an open industry standard as once promised.
In spite of its starkly limited music source options, the HomePod speaker still managed to sell out of preorders on the eve of its release date. The peculiar thing with Apple is that even when it goes into a hardcore proprietary mode, as it has done with the HomePod, there are still hundreds of millions of Apple users out there with the budget and interest to purchase its latest product. Long ago, Sony tried to make all of its stuff proprietary in a similar fashion, but got rejected by the market. Apple has found success by first building out a flourishing and attractive ecosystem, and then leveraging its unprecedented scale.
And yet, I would argue that we should collectively reject the lock-in practice that Apple is currently engaging in. It may seem fine and benign to just add another piece to your Apple hardware puzzle today, but you’re liable to keep that speaker for many years and what happens if Apple makes some decision you disagree with? How easy will it be for you to extricate yourself from the company that already provides your phone, laptop, smartwatch, earphones, speakers, car and TV interface, and — via Apple HomeKit — all your smart home gadgets and devices? Amazon and Google are competing for a similar dominance of our attention spans, but they at least embrace alternative services like Spotify and Tidal. What Apple lacks is the will or interest to be compatible with others.
Apple’s HomePod is, by all accounts, a superb speaker that sets a new benchmark for sound quality in its size and price class. But it is also brazenly hostile to any hardware or service not made by Apple. If you decide to buy one, do so with the full awareness of how deeply ensconced inside the Apple bubble you will be.