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Business

Apple bets on smart speaker's sound quality, brand

HomePod must play catch-up to Amazon, Google rivals

SAN JOSE, U.S. -- Apple has finally thrown its hat in the ring in the escalating competition over voice-activated speakers. But whether its focus on sound quality and customer loyalty will work remains to be seen.

"Just like we did with portable music, we want to reinvent home music," CEO Tim Cook declared Monday toward the end of his keynote address at the opening of Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference here.

Apple's answer to Amazon.com's Echo and Google's Home voice-controlled speakers will hit the American market in December. The cylindrical, Siri-powered HomePod will respond to users' queries about the weather or sports scores by searching the internet for information, and play music when asked to.

The smart assistant will use its sensor to understand its location in a room so that it plays music at optimal volume. The speaker will come with a privacy feature to keep personal data inside the device without uploading it onto a cloud server, for instance.

Apple is credited with having transformed mobile music players. The company apparently aims to make history again with music-playing smart speakers, but the situation has changed drastically in recent years. 

Having grown into a huge corporation, Apple is slow to make moves of late. This time around, it is not the pioneer in the home music market, but rather a latecomer that has no choice but to focus on music for a chance to succeed.

Siri apparently falls behind its peers in artificial intelligence, a key technology. A study by U.S. digital marketing agency Stone Temple Consulting shows that Alphabet's Google Assistant answered 68% of 5,000 questions put to it at 90% accuracy. But Siri responded to only 21% of the questions, getting just 62% of them correct -- outperformed by Microsoft's Cortana and Amazon's Alexa as well.

Apple has been hiring talented engineers from around the world. But the iPhone maker was notoriously secretive and did not let its developers publish papers on their research or attend conferences. Top AI researchers, wanting to remain part of the research community, shunned Apple. In contrast, Google and other rivals eagerly tapped outsiders and have quickly enhanced their technologies through trial and error.

Realizing that such secrecy is damaging its AI ability, Apple made an about-face and began letting its AI researchers publish studies and attend meetings of peers. It has also been stepping up AI startup acquisitions.

But catching up with the competition will not be easy. Apple at its developer conference announced AI services such as automated translations from English to several languages and automated photo editing with face recognition technology. But these are part of Google's broad service lineup already.

In the end, the only edge Apple can offer in smart speakers is its flagship luxury feel. The brand alone will help generate some HomePod sales. Output of the AI speaker is planned at several million units a year, according to a parts supplier -- on a par with the Apple TV streaming box. But the company cannot keep relying on its illustrious brand to conceal its technological lag.

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