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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

HomePod and Studio Display: Filling the right niche

Listening to last week’s Accidental Tech Podcast made me realize: that the original HomePod and the Apple Studio Display have a few things in common. Both products entered a category full of competition—displays and voice-activated speakers. Both were regarded in some quarters as overpriced and over-engineered.

But in some ways, isn’t that just describing the archetypal Apple product? They’re nicer than the competition, but more expensive. They have extra features that most manufacturers wouldn’t bother with—but Apple bothers, because it’s Apple.

Most striking, though, was listening to Marco Arment talk about how he loves his HomePods and how there’s nothing on the market today that’s a match for them in terms of quality and functionality. As someone who just bought a Studio Display, that concept sounds awfully familiar. (Oh yes, and HomePods are now appreciating in value.)

When viewed from the perspective of the overall smart-speaker market, the HomePod seemed like a misstep. But individual users have specific desires and demands. When you try to gauge the market for any particular product, you’re trying to figure out how it fits and if it will sell. These can be entirely different perspectives.

From a market perspective, the HomePod’s price and features made it a poor fit in a limited category, and it appeared from the start that it wouldn’t be a big seller. It wasn’t—in fact, it seems like Apple made an initial batch and then spent the rest of the HomePod’s life trying to unload them all. As a product competing in a market, it was a flop.

But for a small category of users—too small for the full-sized HomePod to continue as an ongoing product—the HomePod was the right combination of features. It fits the use cases of people like Marco Arment, and with it gone, there’s nothing around that’s a good replacement.

Nothing burns like finding the perfect product for you and then discovering that it’s being killed because nobody else wanted it. (I learned this lesson in the late 1970s when my dad’s favorite snack chip was discontinued.) We should never confuse popularity for quality, but if a product is not popular enough to continue being produced, it won’t matter how good it is.

Anyway: The Studio Display. It’s not going to be discontinued due to a lack of interest. On the contrary, it seems to be massively back-ordered. Apple is going to sell a lot of them.

Is the Studio Display overpriced and over-engineered? Depending on how you view the category of “external computer displays,” you could argue that it is. Random PC users and people who literally don’t see anything wrong with a 32-inch curved Dell 4K display will not be buying a Studio Display.

But if you’re a Mac user who wants a high-resolution 5K display in the style of the 5K iMac, this is the one to get. The display market has had years to make versions of this display, and it collectively yawned at the prospect, leaving only one option: the LG UltraFine 5K, a display that many Mac users have bought, but few have loved. Apple has essentially spent half a decade building demand for a product that (essentially) nobody else wanted to make, but it’s a product that appeals to Apple’s core Mac customer base.

The original HomePod and the Studio Display are both outliers in their product categories. In one case, there just weren’t enough people to fill that niche, leading Apple to refactor the product to try to find a larger audience with a cheaper, lower-quality version. In the other, there is enough pent-up demand for the product to be a success.

They may both be weird outlier products, but both of them have communities that love them. Sometimes that’s enough. And sometimes it’s not.

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