Apple HomePod's Underwhelming Debut Might Be a Cautionary Tale

For a company as large as Apple (AAPL) , softer-than-expected HomePod speaker demand will have just a minimal impact on quarterly sales. And as with the Apple Watch, it's possible that sales will eventually bounce as Apple refreshes the HomePod's hardware and improves its software, and would-be buyers gain a better understanding of what the product is and isn't.

But to the extent that the HomePod's apparently underwhelming debut stems from the limitations of its Siri-powered voice assistant services, it could serve as a cautionary tale about how a services strategy that hasn't done much harm to Apple's iPhone, iPad and Mac sales could still have a bigger impact elsewhere.

Over the last week, there have been a string of reports pointing to soft demand for the $349 HomePod, which started shipping on Feb. 9 after being unveiled at last June's WWDC conference. On April 11, Bloomberg's Mark Gurman reported Apple has "lowered [HomePod] sales forecasts and cut some orders" with contract manufacturer Inventec. He also reports hearing from Apple Store workers that HomePod inventory is "piling up," and that some stores are selling fewer than 10 units per day.

Not long afterwards, KGI Securities' Ming-Chi Kuo estimated just 2 million to 2.5 million HomePods would be sold this year, with a million of them sold during the first month of availability. He added that Apple is thinking about offering a cheaper HomePod model. A Chinese media report also suggests a cheaper model is being prepped, and states Apple has cut HomePod production by about 60% to 200,000 units per month.

For comparison, Rosenblatt Securities was estimating in February that six million HomePods would be produced in 2018. Six million HomePods would translate into retail revenue of $2.09 billion. Two million to 2.5 million unit sales, on the other hand, would spell retail revenue of just $698 million to $873 million.

But context is important: Apple's calendar 2018 revenue consensus currently stands at $265 billion. The difference between Rosenblatt's February estimate and KGI's more recent estimate is equal to just slightly over half of 1 percent of that revenue consensus.

And it wouldn't be a shock if HomePod demand improves some once more consumers understand the device is a high-end connected home audio solution far more than it is a direct rival to most speakers powered by Amazon.com's (AMZN) Alexa assistant or Alphabet's (GOOGL) Google Assistant. Though Apple has strongly touted the HomePod's audio quality and most reviewers have praised it, media coverage of the HomePod, together with its support for Siri, seems to have produced a fair amount of confusion.

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So might the fact that the cylindrical HomePod, which measures just 6.8 inches by 5.6 inches, looks like an Amazon Echo or Google Home rival. And if one judges the HomePod solely based on its price and voice assistant features, it measures up poorly relative to the $85 Echo or $129 Home, particularly given Siri's limitations. Just as a would-be Apple Watch buyer would be disappointed with the device if he or she expected it to eliminate the need to use certain smartphone apps, rather than merely complement them.

In addition, just as the Watch benefited from the improvements Apple made to its operating system (watchOS) and built-in apps, HomePod demand could get a lift when Apple adds support for multi-room audio setups and stereo speaker pairing (two features long supported by rival Sonos' systems) later this year. A cheaper model could also provide a lift, but it remains to be seen whether Apple chooses to launch one -- and if it does, what kind of compromises it will make with regards to audio quality.

But while near-term HomePod demand isn't in and of itself anything for Apple investors to be too concerned about, the speaker's debut does raise some uncomfortable questions about how Apple's decision to pair top-notch hardware with an oft-criticized service can handicap its attempts to expand into a promising market. And with Apple Music the only subscription music service that can be controlled via HomePod voice commands, it might also raise questions about how tying quality hardware to even a good proprietary service can limit its addressable market.

By and large, these aren't major problems for the iPhone, iPad or Mac. Though some owners of these devices might complain about how their built-in apps and services don't (in their views) measure up to rival apps and services from Google and others, it's not too often that this acts as a deal-breaker. And that's particularly true since rivals apps and services can often by obtained via the App Store -- for example, someone underwhelmed by Apple Maps and the Safari browser can easily download Google Maps and Chrome.

But on a product like the HomePod, the shortcomings of a service like Siri -- whether in terms of fielding voice commands, the breadth of its third-party ecosystem or simply supporting non-Apple music services -- go from being a nuisance to a larger handicap. Likewise, if (as media reports suggest it might) Apple launches an augmented reality headset or an automotive OS in the coming years, their reliance on services such as Siri and Apple Maps could wind up being a problem, should users not have the option to rely on alternative services if they want.

Apple certainly has its reasons for baking proprietary cloud services into its well-crafted hardware, and avoid becoming dependent on the likes of Google and Amazon. But as the HomePod demonstrates, there's a price attached that goes well beyond mere R&D expenses.

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