The pressure is on for Apple to catch up with Amazon and Google and deliver a dedicated home device for Siri. Or at least, this is what the current narrative would like you to think about how Apple is positioned in the race to the AI promised land.
With Siri soon to be on the Mac as well as on Apple TV, the iPad, the Apple Watch and, of course, the iPhone, Apple is making sure users are never too far from being able to search a file, ask for a movie, dictate a message or inquire about the weather. While all these devices might not have the super power Alexa is granted by having seven microphones all in one place, they are also not meant to be static in our home. Bottom line, Siri is always next to me, no matter if I am at home or not.
I have discussed in the past the challenges Amazon has as it faces taking Alexa outside the home but the key point in my view, as we look at the different approaches vendors are taking with these devices, is to decide if we need a personal assistant or a shared one.
While we have been talking about personal assistants, the level of “personal” they perform seems to vary. In the promotional video for both Echo and Home, the devices, and therefore the assistant within them, are accessed by a family — which makes Alexa and Google assistant look more like Mary Poppins than Jarvis.
When we look at Amazon and Google’s main business and how assistants fit in, a clear distinction between personal and shared does not seem that necessary. Very simplistically, the whole family should shop and the whole family should search! Yet, when we look at Apple, everything screams personal because that is what they make and want to sell: personal devices. Let’s be honest, sharing, specifically from a personal/consumer perspective, has never really been easy on Apple’s devices whether we are talking about forwarding a calendar invite in iCal or sharing a purchase in the App Store. Of course, where there is a will there is a way and users have managed to find ways around most of these limitations to share with other family members. Finally, with iOS 8, Apple made it easy to share content through individual accounts belonging to a family unit. In an ideal world, Apple sees everyone owning their own Apple devices. When I think about it this way, and because of the intense focus Apple has on user experience, I tend to believe they will opt for a very personal “personal assistant” vs a shared one. That personal assistant might draw from others in the home but the value it delivers will be to me specifically.
I do not necessarily think one approach is better than the other. Personally, I think that, similar to how we use calendars, we might want a personal and a shared one. Furthermore, I believe the shared one should have different degrees of access for people who might be present in the home at different times, like a babysitter or a grandparent. When you start to think about the assistant in the context of home access, it is also interesting to see how differently Apple is positioning its devices compared to Amazon. Apple positions the iPhone, the Apple TV and the iPad as home remote controllers that are smart and secure vs Amazon that allows Alexa to be tapped into by different devices. For the user, the final result is the same: switching off the lights, closing the garage and so on. The way they get there is very different and has implications on how consumers will see, not just the assistant, but also the brand behind it. Again, no right or wrong, just a different approach and one that will likely see Alexa branching out much faster but lose some identity while Siri might move more slowly – a lot might depend on how quickly Home will develop – but will always bring the user back to Apple.
The one device vs. many devices also raises the question of how you can handle a household or an office where different people access their own device with the same prompt. Of course, once voice recognition kicks in we will be OK because my Siri, Cortana, Google, Alexa will only respond to me. But in the meantime, how do I stop my Siri from answering someone else’s questions or, even worse, share personal information with someone else? This does not happen very often today because public usage is still limited but it will certainly be a concern over time.
These are many questions that do not have easy answers and it’s certainly not a case of one size fits all. Voice is personal and so are the kinds of interactions vendors are expecting us to exchange with these assistants.