Predictions for Apple's Hands-Free Smart Speaker

As the Apple World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC) starts next week (June 5), the rumors have been swirling about a new Smart Speaker which would compete with Amazon Echo and Google Home.

We can assume that the product will be well-built and sound great.  Apple generally does not create low quality products.  I don't see this as being much of a competitive advantage as the competitive devices are well built too.  

Many people are considering this a 'me-too' announcement in that Amazon already has the big lead and Google is only shortly them (and catching up quickly). Apple has proven in the past that they did not have to be the first company to release a product (remember the iPod came out when many other companies had already built MP3 players). 

Audio Excellence?

Some people think Apple will focus on a great sounding speaker system.  I expect it to sound good, because Apple does not make low end products.  However, that is not enough.  The audio quality of any Smart Speaker is important, but not the only reason people buy these.  Some point to the fact that the Echo Dot has poor quality sound as something that users complain about.  However, this is hardly the case.  People buy the Dot because it is inexpensive, but most importantly they can use the audio out to connect to their own speaker system, be it a (much more expensive) stereo or bluetooth speakers.  For that matter, they can it to their McInotsh (the stereo company).

Audiophiles will always be unhappy with the sound of a smart speaker.  Most people find the regular Echo sounds great to their ears.  To me, I think the regular Echo sounds good (not incredible) and I do agree that the Dot leaves alot to be desired from it's audio.  Yet, people who buy the Dot either don't care (because the audio is fine to them), prefer the less expensive price, and/or are not using the built-in speakers because they are using the audio out.

Apple Eco-system

The first place to start is integration with other Apple products.  I would love to see the following:

  • Data integration - Ok, obvious, but imporant.  Login with your Apple Account.  Access to your Apple Calendar, Contacts and Reminders.  This is probably all they need at start, and should add other systems later.  Alexa supports several calendar systems: Gmail, Outlook, iCloud both consumer versions and enterprise versions.  Google is busy adding features too.
  • Audio FaceTime - Apple already has a very popular voice-over-IP system for communications.  This should be integrated in.  While they are at it, allow intercom functionality for multiple devices in the same house.  
  • iMessage - Apple also has an extremely popular messaging system.  It would be useful to allow users to get and send messages from their Apple Smart Speaker.  Seems like a natural to me, and something Apple can leverage that Amazon does not have.
  • Play Apple Music - The other smart speakers don't support Apple Play (and probably won't).  At the same time, Apple better make sure to support other streaming services like Pandora, Spotify, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn.  Of course, it would be nice to also support Amazon Music and Google Play but that will be extremely unlikely.  As a note, I myself do not like Apple Music, but others do!

  • AirPlay support - The user should be able to send content to the Smart Speaker from their iPhone/iPad/mac via AirPlay.  Also be able to control where that content that is played and send it to another device, all with voice commands.  This should include multi-room sound, so that you can have the same audio playing in different rooms, as well as you can be listening to music in one room and 'send' it to another.   This is a KILLER feature that people are really looking for.  
  • Home Sharing - I want to be able to play the music I own that are under control of iTunes on my computer via voice commands from my Smart Speaker.  This means any digital music I have on my system, and not just the music purchased from iTunes.
  • Control Apple TV - This would be a very welcome addition, and something Google Home does with ChromeCast.  Amazon (still) has no way to control FireTV with Alexa and people want this functionality.
  • HomeKit support - They will have to include Home Automation, as this is one of the most popular use for smart speakers. Apple is known for dragging their feet in this area - mostly as a result of requiring testing and possible payments from vendors who want to support it.  

Apple has already done some ground-breaking work with the AirPods, where they really did think different about how a wireles ear bud could work (take one out from your ear, and the music stops playing!).  Six months after introduction, there is still a six week waiting time.  I expect to see some of this same thinking as they announce their Smart Speaker.

What About Siri?

The other area Apple will need to work on is that of improving Siri.  Although Apple had the lead when they first introduced Siri, they have merely maintained support over the years, without doing much to push it forward with new features and enhancements.  Most likely the reason being that the team that developed Siri was actuallly an acquisiton and the top people left Apple shortly after the company was acquired.  

An issue with Siri on a Smart Speaker is that she often provides additional information in the form of output on your phone's screen.  Clearly, this will need to change.

From a business perspective, on an international basis, Siri has a huge benefit: she is available in over 37 countries!  That is a huge lead.  Alexa is available in three countries (US/UK/DE) with two languages, while Google Home is available in two countries (UK/US) with one language.  This is a substantial lead that with Apples manufacturing ability could provide a huge (there is that word again) competitive advantage.

Siri Extensions

One of the areas I was always most fascinated with Amazon Alexa was the ability to extend the voice user interface by third party developers.  To me, this was the holy grail.  And it is no surprise that Google also felt that way when they added third party developer support, as did Microsoft when they added it to Cortana (which, interestingly, very much resembles the micro-service model of an Alexa Skill).  All Alexa skills reside 'in the cloud'.

However, third party extensions with Siri, use a different model. They are written in Swift (or Objective C) and run on the device (which today is iPhone or iPad, as macOS and tvOS support Siri but not Siri extensions).  The big difference is that these SiriKit extensions must be downloaded like an App and installed on the device.  They are also very limited in the extent of what types of voice commands your App can extend.  This is very different from the cloud-based model used by Alexa, Google Assistant and Cortana.  

Apple could use this to their advantage.  However, one can also see the advantage in the cloud model.  Apple is not so well known for their cloud products services.  Maybe they could use a hybrid of both and have the best of both worlds.  Native skills might allow the device to respond quicker.  

Cost

The final question is how much is this going to cost.  Most people assume it will be high-end and expensive.  We can assume it will not be a cheap product for sure.  The high end of this market would be $200.  Many customers would be willing to pay more from an Apple product which some might think makes it higher quality.  I could easily see them giving it a $199 price tag, or maybe $249.  I don't think they can charge much more for a product like this.  And, considering that the Apple TV could be the starting point for this device, it seems like it is possible that they could hit this price point using less memory and adding a speaker.  

On the other hand, maybe it is just a big rumor.  Give it a couple of days and we'll find out.

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