Apple aims to 'reinvent home music' with HomePod smart speaker

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Apple's deep community of developers helps it compete against Google and Amazon.

Unlike most of the competitors, however, the HomePod has a big focus on music and sound quality with the $349 speaker packing in a 7 tweeter array with precision acoustic horns and directional control.

The speaker, while expected by some industry watchers, marked Apple's first new product announcement since the Apple Watch in September 2014.

Cook and other Apple executives showed off several additional new Siri functions, highlighting how the company has been working to catch up with similar offerings from Alphabet Inc and Amazon.com Inc.

The company is casting Siri as a music connoisseur that will learn and cater to the tastes of the HomePod's owners, as well as answer questions about the songs as they are played. But voice-based interfaces were front-and-center at the company's Worldwide Developers Conference Monday.

It starts shipping later this year in the USA, United Kingdom and Australia. Amazon dominated shipments in the three months through December, selling 88% of the 4.2 million smart speakers sold globally in that period.

The price is quite a jump from Google's $129 Home and Amazon's $180 full-sized Echo. The research firm eMarketer says than 35 million people in the US are expected to use a voice-activated speaker at least once a month this year, more than double its estimate from last year. HomePod is shipping later this year - it's not quite ready for prime time. Although Apple Watch has emerged as the leader among smartwatches, it hasn't become a smash hit like the iPhone. During Jobs' last decade, Apple introduced the iPod, iPhone and iPad - all huge commercial successes that both reshaped daily life and swamped previous digital music players, smartphones and tablets. Google Home followed in October and Microsoft's assistant, Cortana, is also finding a home in home speakers. That's especially important because people are starting to access information, entertainment and search in a more "pervasive" way that's less dependent on smartphones, he said.

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Apple also noted that multiple speakers can be paired meaning it's expecting some people to buy more than one to use as a multi-speaker setup or around the house. Apple said all communications are encrypted. The idea is to get outside software programmers geared up to write apps for Apple products.

Apple is late to the smart home assistant game, though. It will not actually block ads, though.

Apple is also bringing the ability to pay someone back through its payment service, Apple Pay, much as PayPal and other services already do.

Siri, which was introduced in 2011 as an exclusive feature of the iPhone 4S, now works on iPhones, iPads, Apple TVs, Apple Watches, and Mac computers.

Apple also released a software kit so developers could infuse augmented reality into applications for iPhones or iPads. Cook is aiming to double services revenue, which also includes products like iCloud and Apple Music, to around US$50bil (RM212.85bil) by 2020.

Ortutay reported from NY.

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