Farhad’s Week in Tech: HomePod Whiffs, but Elon Musk Does Not

Each Friday, Farhad Manjoo, The Times’s technology columnist, reviews the week’s news, offering analysis (and maybe a joke or two) about the most important developments in the tech industry. Want this newsletter in your inbox? Sign up here.

Good morning! Let’s talk about tech.

The HomePod reviews are in, and the verdict is: It’s middling!

Apple’s smart speaker was originally due to ship last year. Now, after a delay and lots of speculation that it would face a rough go against Amazon’s Echo, Apple’s device is finally on sale.

But most reviewers appraising the device this week suggested that it was best to wait. There are some interesting features in HomePod, but it has a long way to go to beat the competition.

What does it do well? It sounds great. Every reviewer — among them Nilay Patel at The Verge, Joanna Stern at The Wall Street Journal and my New York Times colleague Brian X. Chen — found that HomePod beat Echo, Google Home and a comparable Sonos device in audio quality.

What doesn’t it do well? Pretty much everything else, reviewers said. It’s expensive — $349 versus $85 for an Echo. It’s locked into Apple’s music service, while competing systems let you play songs from a variety of sources.

And most frustratingly, it’s not very smart. Where Amazon’s and Google’s devices can answer a variety of questions and perform lots of different tasks (like order up an Uber or Lyft), HomePod’s brain, Siri, needs evolution. Brian was particularly upset that the device kept playing music he didn’t like. And for Nilay, the biggest complaint was that HomePod couldn’t set two timers at once — basically table stakes in the smart speaker game.

None of these are fatal. Siri is a cloud-based service, which means Apple can keep improving it from afar. Echo, too, wasn’t so great to begin with. So I wouldn’t count Apple out. The smart assistant war has barely started.

Travis Kalanick took the stand, drank a whole lot of water, offered his thoughts on greed and Google, and introduced the world to the crazy lexicon of tech bros: “unpumped,” “angsty” and, most mysteriously of all, “laser is the sauce.”

These are the highlights from Waymo’s big trade-secrets lawsuit against Uber, which, after months of legal maneuvering, finally hit a San Francisco courtroom this week. Kalanick, Uber’s co-founder and ousted C.E.O., was the first high-profile witness to take the stand.

At the heart of the case is one question: Did Uber steal trade secrets from Waymo, Google’s self-driving car spin-off, when it purchased Otto, a self-driving company founded by former employees of Waymo?

The trial is expected to go on for weeks, but early on, Waymo seemed to score some wins. Kalanick conceded that during a “jam sesh” with Anthony Levandowski, the former Waymo engineer alleged to have stolen its secrets, he discussed the key technology at issue in the case, laser sensors. That’s apparently when Kalanick jotted a note that included his conclusion that “laser is the sauce” — it suggested Levandowski had convinced Kalanick of the importance of Waymo’s tech.

I’m sure Uber’s lawyers were unpumped about that.

Here’s something noteworthy from social media land. Snap and Twitter have long appeared at a disadvantage to the 800-pound social media gorilla, Facebook, and the smaller companies’ financial results often proved it.

But this week — surprise! — Snap reported robust revenue and user growth, and Twitter posted its first quarterly profit as a public company.

Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX and Tesla, launched a huge rocket into space! Not only that, but he also put a cherry red Tesla in it, and a mannequin wearing a space suit inside the Tesla. The whole thing will orbit the sun.

There’s some serious stuff here. This is the biggest rocket ever launched by a private company, and it paves the way for an even-larger rocket planned by Musk, called B.F.R., which could help realize Musk’s dream of colonizing Mars. (As my colleague Kenneth Chang explained in this family-friendly newspaper about B.F.R.: “The B stands for big; the R for rocket.”)

But let’s forget the serious stuff for a second. Look at the video of the Tesla’s flight. What a world!

Farhad Manjoo writes a weekly technology column called State of the Art. You can follow him on Twitter here: @fmanjoo.