Following a delay late last year, Apple (AAPL -0.74%) is finally ready to launch its highly anticipated HomePod, its first foray into the booming market for voice-controlled smart speakers. HomePod was initially scheduled to ship in December, and Apple has now announced that the device will ship on Feb. 9, with pre-orders beginning this Friday.

Here's what investors need to know about the HomePod's forthcoming launch.

HomePod on a shelf

Image source: Apple.

Additional features

When HomePod was initially announced at WWDC last summer, the feature list was rather limited. We always knew the device would be controlled by Siri and integrated directly with Apple Music while supporting voice control for smart-home devices using HomeKit. Setting reminders and timers were also always destined to be table stakes, just like fetching news, weather, or traffic information. Apple is now detailing a few additional features that will be available.

HomePod can be used as a speakerphone, routing calls through a paired iPhone nearby. In terms of other communication-oriented features, HomePod will also be able to send messages with Siri. Any app that leverages SiriKit for HomePod -- like Facebook's WhatsApp -- can work with this function. SiriKit for HomePod was introduced to developers late last year with support for third-party messaging. HomePod will also support several touch gestures for additional control.

Multiroom audio was one of the biggest additions for Apple's Airplay 2, the newest version of its wireless streaming protocol. Market leader launched multiroom audio for its Echo devices just a couple months after AirPlay 2 was announced. Unfortunately, AirPlay 2 still isn't ready to ship quite yet and multiroom audio will not be available on HomePod initially, with support coming later this year via a software update.

Can HomePod be the best smart speaker?

HomePod is late to the smart speaker party, but Apple often says it doesn't care about being first to market as long as it can be the best once it gets there. Whether or not HomePod proves to be the best smart speaker remains to be seen, but it's fair to question the product's competitiveness. There should be little doubt that Apple has engineered HomePod to deliver sound quality that can please audiophiles, but that quality may be lost on average consumers -- many of whom may not be willing to pay $350 for quality that they can't discern.

Siri is also universally accepted as a laggard compared to Alexa or Google Assistant. Apple Music is generally very competitive with Spotify as a music streaming service, but Spotify users (all 70 million of them) will have no use for a HomePod, as the competing service is not supported.

There's a real possibility that HomePod will be both late to market and fail to be the best, which is a terrible combination for Apple.