Voice-Activated Communications Takes Next Step With Apple’s HomePod

Usually Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WDC) is a no-brainer, page 1 story. That it’s been relegated to the business section in some sites and newspapers this week is a reflection of the severity of global news from Europe and the Middle East crowding it off the front page. Still, the news coming out of WDC is important. That’s usually the case when the worlds’ second-most valuable brand behind Google speaks.

homepod-siri-interactIt seemed the big news Monday was the unveiling of the 7-inch-high, squat home speaker with an iPhone inside it, HomePod ($349). Not only is it an intelligent speaker—it supposedly will adjust its sound to the contours of the room it’s in and make similar tweaks when paired with another HomePod or HomePods—it also has the mind of Siri, Apple’s voice-activated assistant, inside it. So if, after a hard day in the PR wars, you are relaxing on your couch and ask HomePod to play soothing music, it should respond appropriately. Similar to Amazon’s Echo, it also can tell you the weather (if asked), keep track of appointments and regulate devices in your home.

Something else Apple unveiled Monday also will help sell this home speaker: Siri on your HomePod will be the same Siri that’s on your iPhone or iPad. So, if you’re texting on your iPhone about Saturday’s concert, HomePod might offer to play music from artists featured in the concert. Whether or not HomePod, and by extension Siri, will be able to use its six microphones to distinguish your voice when the kids are running wild, the dog’s barking, music is playing and the doorbell is ringing remains to be seen. Apple allowed media to listen to the HomePod Monday (the reviews were excellent), but not to talk to it.

Another unanswered question: Will HomePod know that your voice is yours, as opposed to that of your spouse? And, as Geoffrey Fowler writes, “If you call out to [a HomePod] in the living room, will the one in the kitchen answer, too? Nobody wants a house full of kids named Siri.” The thing is, a competitor, Google’s Home, apparently can distinguish voices.

The downsides include that the pricey HomePod likely works only within Apple’s ecosystem; and Echo ($179), not HomePod, has access to Amazon’s excellent stock of goods (yes, Echo can order merchandise for you).

On the other hand, HomePod has a PR angle going for it that Amazon seems to lack: Apple has a reputation for respecting users' privacy. As you might recall, Apple refused to divulge keys to unlocking data to the FBI of the iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters last year.

Its apparent reverence for privacy might be something Apple can emphasize to distinguish HomePod from Echo. As the Wall Street Journal’s Lara O’Reilly noted, “In a speech two years ago, Apple CEO Tim Cook took a clear swipe at Google and Facebook, saying: ‘They’re gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it. We think that’s wrong. And it’s not the kind of company that Apple wants to be.’”

It’s difficult to say right now what HomePod means for communicators (the ability to play soothing music while the communicator is on the couch excepted). More seriously, can the HomePod and other voice-activated devices carry brand messages into the home? If so, communicators will be all over them. Perhaps when HomePod and others of its ilk also feature video screens there will be room for communicators’ messages to appear.

Speaking of ads, one of the lesser-hyped announcements Apple made Monday may have implications soon for communicators and marketers. The announcement was for an ad tracker blocker on Apple's Safari desktop browser. Its premise is simple, its task more difficult: Stop ads for products that you once were interested in and no longer are from following you are around online. While Safari is a niche browser, the move into ad blocking is something for brand communicators and marketers to watch closely, especially since Google also added its voice to the ad-blocking chorus recently.

Follow Seth: @skarenstein