The annual frenzy of Apple product rumors has a new offering this year: An Amazon Echo-style smart speaker with Siri built in has long seemed inevitable, but now the details are trickling in. Apple’s smart speaker, reportedly to be announced at WWDC next week, will boast “virtual surround sound technology” and higher quality audio, according to Bloomberg.
It will also reportedly feature plenty of integration with Apple services like HomeKit and Apple Music, in addition to being controlled using Siri, Apple’s six-year-old voice control technology. From the sound of it, Apple’s Siri speaker could be a huge deal—or not, depending on the details. So, should you be excited?
Apple’s Smart Speaker Could Be Its Next Killer Product
When Amazon released the Echo smart speaker in 2015, few expected it to be a blockbuster hit. But it was; Amazon has reportedly sold over 10 million Alexa-powered devices like the Echo and Echo Dot, spawning competitors like the Google Home and making Alexa the go-to voice control platform for third-party developers. Even Sonos, the wireless hi-fi multi-room speaker company founded in 2002, suddenly shifted gears to prioritize voice control after the Echo’s explosive success.
Clearly, there’s a demand for these gadgets. That’s a good sign for Apple, which has a knack for borrowing existing ideas and adding its own design polish and marketing prowess–often with great success. In this case, Apple appears to be focused on audio quality and clever acoustic technology to make its speaker tempting to consumers. Bloomberg elaborates:
Along with generating virtual surround sound, the speakers being tested are louder and reproduce sound more crisply than rival offerings, the people said. Apple has also considered including sensors that measure a room’s acoustics and automatically adjust audio levels during use, one of the people said.
Damn. An excellent-sounding speaker with a sleek, non-obtrusive design would be compelling enough, but the ability to tune the speaker to the room (like Sonos’s TruePlay tech, it sounds like) and mimic surround sound could push it over the top in the eyes of consumers. It might even be useful for home theater setups, depending on the design and audio input options.
At the very least, it will be a marked improvement over your laptop speakers, low-end Bluetooth speakers, and even the Amazon Echo. While Amazon’s speaker isn’t terrible-sounding, it’s not hard to imagine Apple’s acoustics engineers one-upping the Echo’s sound quality. Giving owners the option to tweak the sound based on their environment is a nice touch, too.
The HomeKit integration is promising too. The first time I watched a friend ask Alexa to turn the lights on in his apartment, I definitely had one of those “Holy shit, Minority Report is real life” moments. Of course, HomeKit integrates not only with smart lights like Phillips Hue (and others), but a long list of smart locks, thermostats, and other household sensors. Owners of Alphabet’s line of Nest smart home products are still out of luck, though, because sometimes competitive tech giants act like middle schoolers at our expense.
How Apple Could Screw This Up
The motivation for Apple to build a speaker like this is pretty obvious: If it takes off, it can bolster Apple’s own services like HomeKit, Siri, and Apple Music—and even integrate tightly with other iOS features like Mail, Calendar, Reminders, and anything else Siri is already tapped into. A successful smart speaker could be the foothold in the smart home of the future that Apple executives have been dreaming of for years.
But as usual, Apple has to balance that self-interest with the wants and needs of its customers—something it doesn’t always do flawlessly. Opening up iOS to third-party developers and launching the App Store proved to be a transformative move. But by contrast, it took Apple five years to open Siri up to developers and integrations have been slow to roll out.
The usefulness of the Apple smart speaker—and thus its likely success—will hinge much more heavily on Siri than has ever been the case for an Apple product. For the iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple TV, Siri is a nice, sometimes convenient way to interact with a machine, but it’s not necessary. In fact, the majority of my interactions with Siri happen by accident, thanks to my own butt. I just don’t use it that much.
A Siri-powered device in the home could change that, provided it works well enough. Right now, I can update Facebook, call a Lyft, and search Yelp using Siri. But I can’t play songs from Spotify, for instance. SiriKit doesn’t support music playback from third-party apps, presumably because Apple is Apple and it wants you to subscribe to Apple Music.
But freedom of choice is paramount to an experience like this. I can listen to a wide range of different music services on Sonos and my Amazon Echo. Locking its speaker users into Apple Music would be a deal killer for people who already subscribe to other music services, so much so that I would be surprised if Apple went this route. But again, Apple is Apple. You never know.
Amazon’s approach to this conundrum is a respectable one; you can stream music services like Spotify and Pandora on Echo devices, but if you sign up for Amazon Music Unlimited (the company’s answer to Spotify), you get much more advanced and granular voice control options (“Alexa, play that song that goes, ‘Hey now, you’re an all-star”). Amazon’s music service is also cheaper for Echo owners and Prime subscribers. So, you don’t have to subscribe to Amazon’s music service to use the Echo, but the company tries to make the option tempting. Apple would be wise to strike a similar balance, prioritizing its own services without limiting its customers’ freedom of choice.
Alas, we’re still at the rumor stage of the pre-WWDC speculation cycle, so what Apple winds up doing remains anybody’s guess. But suffice it to say that iOS-addicted music fans like me—not to mention the competition—will be watching Apple’s next move closely.