Thoughts on a Potential Echo Competitor

Rumors of an Apple-made Echo competitor have been around for nearly as long as Amazon has been selling their voice assistant devices. Last year, The Information claimed that Apple had been working on a Siri-powered smart speaker since 2015. Here we are, a year after The Information’s piece, and the current crop of rumors are pointing toward this year’s WWDC as a possible announcement venue.

Ming-Chi Kuo, writing for KGI Securities, as quoted by MacRumors:

We believe there is an over 50% chance that Apple will announce its first home AI product at WWDC in June and start selling in the [second half of 2017] in order to compete with the new Amazon Echo models to be launched […]

We expect Apple’s first home AI product will have excellent acoustics performance (one woofer + seven tweeters) and computing power (similar to iPhone 6/6S AP). Therefore the product is likely to be positioned for: (i) the high-end market; (ii) better entertainment experience; and (iii) higher price than Amazon Echo.

I think it’s worth pointing out that Kuo believes Apple’s Echo competitor will be positioned to compete with “the new Amazon Echo models to be launched”. Just eight days after KGI Securities published this note to investors, Amazon unveiled the Echo Show — a new smart speaker device with a built-in display. Perhaps this is the device that Apple is aiming to compete with.

Adding fuel to the fire, Phil Schiller, in an interview with Gadget360, was asked about the Amazon Echo and Google Home. He wouldn’t speak to either device specifically, instead choosing to discuss the category as a whole. While Schiller did admit that there were times when an entirely voice-controlled interface was useful, he emphasized the importance of a display for many tasks:

First of all, there is a lot of talk in the industry about voice-driven assistants and we believe deeply in voice-driven assistants that’s why invest in Siri, but there is interest in a voice-only assistant, where there is no screen, and we think it’s important to that there are times when it’s convenient to simply use your voice when you are not able to use the screen. For example, if you’re driving [and] you want Siri to work for you without having to look at the screen, that’s the best thing. Or maybe you’re across the room, and you want to ask Siri to change the song you were listening to – you don’t have to walk over and back [and you can use Siri instead].

So there’s many moments where a voice assistant is really beneficial, but that doesn’t mean you’d never want a screen. So the idea of not having a screen, I don’t think suits many situations.

If Apple plans to announce a Siri-powered smart speaker at WWDC — and I think they will — it has to feature a touch screen display. And in an attempt to one-up Amazon’s Echo Show, I believe Apple’s Siri-powered device will feature a fully-functional version of iOS that’s capable of running all of the same software as the iPad or iPhone. One of Apple’s greatest strengths is the iOS ecosystem — a never-ending supply of developers building some of the most innovative software of our time.

A touch screen device that’s built on iOS seems like a no-brainer, but the bigger question is, what will the Siri-powered speaker actually look like? Will it be similar to Amazon’s Echo Show — an iMac-like iOS device? Or will it be two components — a dock with high-quality speakers and beam-forming microphones alongside an iPad Mini-sized tablet.

I would prefer Apple to favor versatility and portability in their design and opt for a Siri-speaker with multiple components. Give me a device that, when docked, can be fully operated by voice — for use while cooking or doing dishes — but can also be removed from the dock and carried into the dining room for light reading while I enjoy a cup of coffee.

I want the ability to browse for recipes on the tablet’s touchscreen while I’m streaming podcasts from my iPhone to the device’s speaker dock. I want to use my voice to start playback of the latest episode of Silicon Valley and have that viewing reflected in the TV app on my Apple TV and iPad. I want a an Echo-competitor that feels fully entrenched in Apple’s ecosystem — something that syncs with my iCloud account, can run all of the same applications as my iPhone and iPad, and leverages services like FaceTime, the TV app, and iMessages.

I think this is something Apple can deliver. Maybe they can’t do everything in 1.0. But if they can ship a sizable portion of these features by the end of the year, I’ll be the first in line to buy one.