Rumors have been circulating Apple will join Amazon and Google and make their own version of a smart speaker to compete with the Echo and Home speakers. Observing the commentary surrounding this rumor has certainly revealed many opinions on the matter, both in favor and against it. I even sense a debate inside Apple on whether a smart speaker is a fad or if it has staying power. I lean in the direction of Apple entering this market and competing with Google and Amazon and would like to make the case this product should exist.
Whole Room Audio
The sales of Bluetooth speakers over the past few years did not get much attention even though it was a growing trend. These small and affordable units hit a pain point for many consumers in that they did not have ample speakers in many places where they wanted to consume their music. Contrary to popular opinions, as these products were starting to gain popularity, most of them rarely left the house and were simply used in rooms where a sound system did not exist (which is most rooms in the average consumer home).
The home environment is very different than the public one. Those who express their pessimism over the smart speaker solutions often misunderstand the average consumer home dynamic. In common rooms like the living room, kitchen, patio, family room, etc., access to music is either very limited or non-existent. Bluetooth speakers filled this void and validated the desire of consumers to have access to music in more rooms of the house.
From the value proposition of whole room audio alone, this would be a smart play for Apple and adding the smarts of Siri opens up a rich ecosystem as well. Apple Music is an example of something that would benefit from this hardware significantly. As every available bit of data we have proves, hardware for Apple drives their services. Hardware built to uniquely take advantage of those services will drive it even further. It is not a stretch to say, if Apple sold a smart speaker, subscriptions to Apple Music would increase significantly due to Apple’s ability to tightly integrate hardware, software, and services.
Siri is always with You and Can always Hear You
One of the arguments against a Siri speaker is you always have your iPhone with you, making the iPhone the proper place for you to always access Siri. The flaw in this argument is, while your iPhone may always be with you, or not far from you, can it always hear you? The answer is no. When my iPhone is in my pocket, accessing Siri doesn’t work. When my iPhone is in the living room and I’m in the kitchen cooking, Siri can’t hear me. The counter-argument posits that Apple Watch or AirPods fill this hole since Apple Watch is always on my wrist or AirPods are in my ear. The reality, however, is not every iPhone owner will own one of those products in the foreseeable future. even if this argument is correct, the question remains: where does my music play?
This is where the home dynamic challenges Apple’s traditional and very individualized view of technology. The home is a shared a common environment, so to say everyone should just listen to their iPhone with headphones or AirPods on while walking around the house is a distorted view of what goes on in the home.
Here again is why the music experience and value of whole room audio alone makes a strong case for a Siri speaker to exist. But the challenge of putting Siri into something that can always hear you remains. A smart speaker can be purpose built to be a better listening device than your smartphone, watch or even earphones can be. This is one reason why the Amazon Echo is perceived as having better natural language processing than Siri. In a quiet, close range environment, Siri understands me as well as the Echo. However, the Echo hears me better in the normal dynamics of the home, thanks to how the microphones are built and tuned.
The Battle for the Smarthome
What smart speakers are showing us is the growing battle for the smart home platform. Voice control has hit its stride as the most convenient way to interact with your smarthome. I’d also add, voice is on the cusp of becoming the mechanism to eliminate the remote with our TV experience.
The battle for the smartphone will be one fought by the number of endpoints in your home which you can interact with in some way. Amazon wants to get an Echo in every room and so does Google. Using the assistant on your phone makes sense in many contexts, however. In the home, having other ways to interact with your smart assistant beyond just your smartphone, smartwatch, or earphones, only increases the potential chances to engage with a smart assistant service.
The goal of companies battling for smart assistant domination should not limit potential chances to engage but extend their assistants far and wide in order to make sure the consumer always has a convenient way to engage. If they don’t, they risk losing key experiences to their competition.