Apple unveils 'HomePod' speaker, first new product in years

It will allow users to talk to Siri, Apple's digital assistant, while at home and costs US$349 (S$ 481) - nearly double the price of most competing products.

Siri will soon be front and centre on the Apple Watch, just like the Google Assistant has started showing up on Android Wear smartwatches.

Some industry-watchers have also predicted Apple will announce hardware similar to Amazon's Echo device for the home, which has been a hot-seller in the USA.

In addition to controlling the music, Siri on the HomePod can send messages, get updates on news, sports and weather, or control smart home devices working with Apple's HomeKit. Apple is pitching the HomePod as both a high-quality speaker and a home assistant.

Among the new features of iOS 11 is the ability to make person-to-person payments through Apple's messaging app, thanks to new integration with the Apple Pay system. While the Echo and Home aren't known for great sound quality, Apple engineers-presumably with some help from Beats engineers-built the HomePod for high-fidelity audio quality.

Amazon had introduced its Echo in 2014, and Google started shipping its competitor, Google Home, last year. But it's a lot cheaper than the iPhone, which starts at $649 and is now the main way people access Siri. And when factoring that HomePod comes equipped with the A8 chip, the same processor found in the iPhone 6 from 2016. It also (like every AI Speaker out there) boasts of a touchscreen upper-surface that can be used to trigger Siri.

The announcement, made at the company's 2017 Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) today in San Jose, was one of the year's worst-kept tech secrets and was widely predicted.

Notable iOS updates included the redesigned App Store, new Map features such as shopping mall floor maps and lane guidance, new camera features and an augmented-reality software development kit called AR Kit, Zino said.

To allay fears of any type of snooping, Apple assures prospective buyers that the "Hey Siri" launch phrase is recognised locally on the device and if any information is sent to Apple servers, it will always be encrypted and sent using an anonymous Siri identifier. The HomePod is integrated with Apple Music which makes it possible to listen to wide array of 40 million songs from its library. Federighi highlighted stories about Iceland after a search in Safari for holidays to the island.

Augmented reality is a mixture of live images and virtual animations and objects placed over them.

Apple said it is also using "on-device learning" to enable Siri to take people's tastes into account. In addition, the usual previews of the forthcoming Mac, iPhone, Apple Watch and Apple TV OS will also form part of the brand's presentations, as has been convention.

As expected, Apple also updated its Mac notebooks and desktop computers, which were long overdue for a refresh.

Apple is facing stiff competition in maintaining market share and is trying to find a means to continue to grow its consumer revenue. But Apple occasionally also uses the event to introduce new devices and services and upgrades to existing products. However, if its audio capabilities are as good as Apple claims, it could be inviting for iPhone and iPad owners looking for a single do-everything speaker for their home or apartment. They will be available in the coming week in a choice of three colours, starting at United States dollars 695 for the 10.5-inch model with 64 GB memory and USD 799 for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro.