Apple Sets Smart Speaker's Debut -- WSJ

By Tripp Mickle Features Dow Jones Newswires

This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S. print edition of The Wall Street Journal (January 24, 2018).

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Apple Inc. will start selling its voice-activated speaker HomePod in stores Feb. 9, after a launch delay that cost the company sales during the critical holiday shopping season.

The tech giant, in announcing the sales date Tuesday, didn't explain why the product missed a promised December ship date. The HomePod can be preordered online beginning Friday.

Market leaders Amazon.com Inc. and Alphabet Inc. continued to sell Echo and Google Home devices during the holidays, while Apple worked on a rival product it said wasn't ready for sale.

Amazon was the first major tech company to enter the smart-speaker market in late 2014, opening a wide lead by selling more than 20 million Echos even before tallying sales for the recent Christmas season. Its hockey puck-sized Echo Dot is estimated to account for more than half of Amazon's speaker unit sales, largely because of its lower price, which dropped to $30 during the holidays before rising to $50.

The smart-speaker shipments world-wide are expected to rise more than 50% this year to 56 million units, according to the market researcher Canalys. The U.S. will account for more than half of those sales, it said.

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At $349, the HomePod costs considerably more than Amazon's latest Echo and a Google Home, whose list prices are $100 and $129, respectively.

Apple has tried to differentiate its speaker by emphasizing sound quality, particularly when playing music, over the device's ability to perform tasks.

Voice-activated speakers have moved to the forefront in a battle over what some technology analysts see as the future of computing. Virtual assistants such as Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, Microsoft Corp.'s Cortana and Google Assistant are expected to be embedded in more than 4 billion consumer devices by the end of 2018, allowing people to perform simple computing tasks by voice such as searching for information or turning off lights, according to the research firm IHS Markit.

Apple's Siri has a much wider presence by virtue of being featured on more than a billion iPhones and iPads. However, Amazon and Google are aiming to catch up by cutting deals to put their assistants into such products as Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles and Sony Corp. televisions. They also offer greater functionality; Amazon's Alexa, for example, can perform thousands of commands compared with hundreds by Siri.

The HomePod was the latest in a series of Apple products that faced delayed. The AirPods earbuds missed their promised ship date last year, and the Apple Watch, promised in early 2015, arrived late in April of that year.

Apple said the HomePod initially will be available in the U.S., U.K. and Australia, and will arrive in France and Germany this spring.

Write to Tripp Mickle at Tripp.Mickle@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 24, 2018 02:47 ET (07:47 GMT)