Apple’s Music Strategy: Return of the ‘Pod’

Apple’s new HomePod has certainly proven to be divisive, with some reviewers lauding its superior sound quality and hardware design and others criticising Siri’s general intelligence.

I’m not going to review every element of the device; that has already been done to death. I also have no home automation accessories, so discussing HomePod’s integration with HomeKit and other smart accessories is also pointless here. I want to discuss HomePod’s audio quality and how it threads into Apple’s broader music strategy.

I am extremely impressed with the audio quality and can attest to the immersive ‘3D’ effect that HomePod projects throughout a room. It even sounds better than two other decent stereo and soundbar systems that I have at home. I have never heard the level of crispness and audio separation from any home/consumer speaker that I have experienced with this device. Bass is powerful but does not distort; vocals and higher tones are crisp and come to the fore (without sounding over-produced). Song with electronic elements really shine and I have found myself playing OK Go’s song Obsession a lot on HomePod. It sounds fantastic.

What I’m really excited about is Apple’s renewed focus on music. In the noughties, Apple transformed itself into an effective music device and service company with its iPod + iTunes strategy. People who had never owned a Mac (or any other Apple device) were exposed to an array of colourful, reliable music players and a new world of digital purchases. More people entered the Apple ecosystem and with Apple’s product ‘halo effect’, more than likely purchased a Mac and other accessories. As time went on, the torch was passed onto devices like the iPhone and iPad, as the iPod slowly faded away.

The iPod + iTunes area has already earned nostalgic status, as nowadays we enjoy the even greater convenience of streaming millions of songs instantly through our smartphones. It now seems archaic to plug a music player or smartphone into a desktop computer. Apple was also famously late to the streaming party, only now catching up to Spotify’s subscription numbers in the United States. No doubt, this delay would have been influenced by Steve Jobs’s personal views on streaming — he believed strongly in the idea of owning your own music. Remember Cover Flow in iTunes? It was all about creating the equivalent digital experience of flicking through a shelf of vinyl records.

We are now seeing Apple assert itself in the music space again, hitting the reset button after a long, gradual period of declining iTunes music sales. With HomePod and its successful AirPods, Apple is building a musical hardware experience equivalent in scope to its Siri strategy. Siri is everywhere, across all of our devices. The iPod once promised to put 1000 songs in your pocket, and now with HomePod and AirPods, Apple is continuing the ‘Pod’ moniker to show users how they get access to their music in high quality everywhere.

Of course, these great hardware experiences feed back into the success of Apple Music and its increasing number of subscribers. Apple has always said that music is ‘in its DNA’. As the iTunes app on the Mac has become more bloated, we couldn’t always be so sure that Apple had the same focus on music. I’m optimistic about where these things are heading. Perhaps the biggest wish that we all have is the final separation of iTunes’s separate components, delivering dedicated music, podcast and video apps to create true consistency with the experience on iOS.

For now, the HomePod isn’t perfect, but I’m pleased to be an early adopter and see the new software features roll in…

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