Apple delays launch of smart speaker

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Apple is delaying the release of its HomePod smart speaker until 2018.

The electronics giant said the device, which was due to be released in December this year, still needed development work.

It said the HomePod would be ready to go on shop shelves in the US, UK and Australia “early in 2018”.

The news is a blow to its plans to take on rivals Amazon and Google in the growing market for home devices that use AI to help consumers.

‘Not surprising’

In a statement sent to news organisations, Apple said the wireless speaker needed “a little more time before it’s ready for our customers”.

The delay will mean Apple misses the lucrative holiday season during which many consumers buy gadgets as gifts.

The gadget was first unveiled in June this year when Apple said it would go on sale in the US for $349 (£265). In the UK it was expected to cost £350.

It was designed to be a competitor to other smart speakers – such as Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Assistant. Sonos, Microsoft and others also make similar gadgets.

Like them it was designed to play music and act as a hands-free helper letting owners set timers, maintain shopping lists and get reports about the news, weather and other subjects.

Since Apple unveiled the HomePod both Google and Amazon have added new models to their ranges of smart speakers, intensifying the competition with Apple.

Writing in Engadget, associate editor Jon Fingle said the delay was “not surprising” given that the HomePod was Apple’s first try at a smart speaker.

“The HomePod isn’t necessarily in trouble,” he said. “but it may face a tougher battle than it did beforehand.”

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Apple has delayed its Siri-powered HomePod until next year, meaning it will miss out on what is expected to be high demand for “smart speakers” in the holiday shopping season.

Delaying a previously announced product is highly unusual for Apple but it marks the second year in a row when an audio accessory faced launch issues, after it struggled to release its AirPods wireless headphones in time for last Christmas.

The iPhone maker unveiled the HomePod in June at its annual developers conference, when chief executive Tim Cook promised customers would be “blown away” by its “breakthrough” speaker. At that point, the speaker had already been in development for several years.

No specific reason was given for the sudden delay, which hands an advantage to Amazon’s Echo range and Alphabet’s Google Home in one of the fastest-growing gadget categories.

“We can’t wait for people to experience HomePod . . . but we need a little more time before it’s ready for our customers,” the company said on Friday morning. “We’ll start shipping in the US, UK and Australia in early 2018.”

Apple had pitched the $350 HomePod as a high-end music playing device, touting its high-fidelity sound and tight integration with its Apple Music service. The product’s name was a reference to the iPod and Apple’s long association with digital music.

In the meantime, rival devices from Amazon and Google have extended their capabilities into a wide range of other areas beyond audio, from controlling smart-home devices to ordering pizza.

Developers have created more than 25,000 “skills” that tap into Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant. Earlier this week, the company expanded the Echo’s reach by launching the device in Canada, after introducing a bigger line-up of Alexa-powered devices last month.

“While missing holidays is a shame I think what is at stake here is much more longer term for Apple and they are wise in taking the time,” said Carolina Milanesi, analyst at Creative Strategies. “If HomePod shipped today and all it did was deliver great sound, Apple would be more likely to lose the Assistant and connected home battle than if it delayed the product to knock our socks off when it ships.”

Last year, Apple’s $160 AirPods had been scheduled to launch in October but did not go on sale until mid-December, and were in short supply for months. However, the product is now seen as one of Apple’s most popular accessories.

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