The Real Threat to Apple: The Invisible Device

The Amazon Echo: what happens if this is all there is to a device? CC-licensed photo by Cryptik Merlin on Flickr

For years, Apple has made a name for itself through the design of its products – their combination of appearance, materials, and software functionality (which is part of the “design”, aka “how it works”). It has been able to command premium prices for desktops, laptops, phones, tablets, even routers by making things that not only work well, but look good.

What happens to that advantage and ability to command a premium, though, when there isn’t a product to hold? What happens if you don’t have a phone to pull out, a tablet to press, or a router to put in the corner of your room?

This thought struck me while listening to John Gruber and Ben Thompson discussing Amazon’s Echo, which we could roughly call a home automation device, and considering Google Home, which is going to be approximately the same thing. Both de-emphasise the physical product (there isn’t even a screen) in favour of an unobtrusive always-listening device which doesn’t need to be pressed or waved at; it just responds when spoken to.

It’s not hard to imagine future versions of Google Home or the Amazon Echo would have less and less physical hardware; essentially, they only need to power a microphone, a speaker and an internet connection. In which case, what would Apple’s version look like? It might look – might even be – the Apple TV. It’s nice, but many people would struggle to pick it out of a lineup. And once it’s underneath or behind your TV, you could forget it’s there.

Razing the playing field

But when you reach that point, the ground on which Apple used to fight – appearance, materials, “look and feel” – has suddenly vanished. The shift to systems which don’t need us to look at them directly and which feed information back to us by means other than an integrated item with a screen, doesn’t so much move the goalposts as set fire to them and terraform the field where they were standing.

In the same vein, I was asked a few years ago – when Siri had newly been announced, but Samsung was already making inroads to the premium market with the Galaxy Note – what I thought the phone of the future would look like. I suggested you wouldn’t actually look at it much. It would probably be Galaxy Note-sized but it would sit in your pocket and feed information to your headphones in response to questions you asked into the mic on the headset. Less need for the screen, less need for typing on the physical object.

Our obsession with photographs and cameras has forestalled that shift; Instagram and Snapchat demonstrate that, when it comes to social interaction, we love the visual. That suggests screens and devices – in other words, things we actually hold and carry around – remain important.

Even so, the invisible device does seem to me the biggest risk Apple faces. The advantage it has is Amazon’s Echo and Google Home are devices for, well, the home and, although we might talk a lot about it, the extent of our desire to have computing interaction with our home is surprisingly limited. Jan Dawson made this point well recently. The current “smart home” market is composed of early adopters because your fridge can’t ever be that smart and you’ll still have to load and unload your washing and put coffee into the coffee machine.

What’s more, most of us spend most of our time outside the home. And that’s where we need our devices. So far, we haven’t quite taken up the idea of chatting away to our headsets in the manner of Joaquin Phoenix in Her. But, bear in mind, social norms can shift; our parents’ generation would have been (and still are) appalled by the way teenagers today will ignore each other while across a table, or their elders, in favor of the glowing screen. And 30 years ago, walking along the street talking aloud to nobody was a sign of insanity. Now it just means you’re on a call. (Spot the difference: if you’re wearing earphones, nobody will turn a hair.) If intelligent assistants really take off, devices might shrink away too. Though every time I follow that reasoning, I arrive back at the need to digest visual information. We’ll still need screens, and hence housings for screens, and hence design.

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That this potentially poses a threat to Apple doesn’t mean that everyone’s safe. Amazon’s pretty safe; if people order things via the Echo, it benefits. But Google relies on people looking at ads for 90% of its revenues and rather more of its profits. If we don’t look at a screen, how do we get the ads? Perhaps it will adopt the solution chosen in the UK by the “Speaking Clock”, a phone service you called to get the precise time read out to you. In 1986, the newly privatised British Telecom put it out to sponsorship, which was eagerly snapped up by Accurist – and so for 22 years, you would be told, “the time sponsored by Accurist is…”

Maybe that’s how Google will adapt if voice is the new interface. Equally, maybe that will open the door for companies like Apple to charge extra so we don’t hear the ads. The invisible device might still yield a premium. It’s just a question of what you’re paying for.

Published by

Charles Arthur

Charles Arthur has been a journalist writing about science, technology and sports for over 20 years. He has worked at New Scientist, been technology editor at The Independent newspaper, and was most recently technology editor at The Guardian newspaper from 2005 to 2014. He blogs at The Overspill (

15 thoughts on “The Real Threat to Apple: The Invisible Device”

  1. Two things:

    First, one of the reasons I hate stupid Apple doomsayer analysis is because it obscures analysis of the real threats the Apple faces.

    Second, I’ve been thinking a bit on this question of whether Apple is going to be displaced by A.I. and other non-corporeal products. Maybe. But — without having reached any firm conclusions yet — I’m thinking that we still have a long way to go before that happens. We’ve only started our journey to the wrist, and I think that journey still has a way to go. And even after that, what about wearable devices that hidden on our bodies or too small to see? Things that monitor us and our world? Even there, I think beautifully designed hardware has a place.

    Lots to ponder.

    P.S. Charles, this is an aside, but I always love your stuff. I am, in fact, planning on quoting you in my next article. (“Apple follows from the front.”) Keep up the fine work.

      1. Exactly. In the last year Apple has acquired Perceptio, Emotient, and VocalIQ. And those are just the AI companies we know about that Apple bought recently. There has also been speculation that Apple’s R&D spending is way above what could be explained by the car project, and one possible answer is AI + cloud.

    1. I do not think the threat to Apple is about eliminate the need for a screen quite contrary the risk is about eliminate the value of owning and spending a lot of money on Apple product which could no longer provide the Cloud base everywhere AI that we would rely on.

      the next step of Software and Hardware integration will happen on the Cloud not on your Phone

  2. “The Invisible Device”!
    Now that’s “disruptive”! Oh crap, I used an MBA word! Feeling very dirty about now…

    That said, could happen. Could also happen that as more consumers get tech knowledgeable, the more difficult it would be for Apple to make them think they invented everything, and to pay Apple premiums. Just sayin…

  3. Assuming digital assistants exit the early adopter phase and become more generally useful we’re certainly not going to carry around an Echo or similar device from Google or Microsoft as we go from home to work to entertainment venues to visits with friends, out to eat, etc. Nor are we going to be happy with only one home ‘ever on ever listening device” especially in large sprawling American style homes. That’s why the AppleTV will not make a good Amazon Echo device and why the Amazon Echo or Google Assistant will prove ungainly and frustrating.

    Enter the AppleWatch, a device that is right up Apple’s alley, always with you, personalised to your needs. Siri, opened up to developers may well be the killer app on the AppleWatch

  4. Sometimes it is enlightening to ask an extreme hypothetical question. In this case, assume that AI becomes really intelligent and can answer all your verbal questions. Assume that it is connected to all services and can do everything that you command. Assume that it is like a Genie that listens to all your commands, not just three. Assume that it also knows your daily habits.

    However, also limit the Genie so that it is not directly wired to your brain. You can only give it verbal cues. Output is also limited to oral.

    Then ask yourself, will you still need a smartphone? Will you still need a screen?

    How will you read Techpinions, Twitter, the news? How will you convey complicated concepts without paper or PowerPoint? How will you provide a dashboard of your company’s performance? Do you really want your Genie to read them to you?

    As Charles mentions in the article, humans love visuals, video and screens, even before they learn to talk. When they get to 9 years, our kids often immerse themselves in text. It’s going to take a lot to change that.

    Voice UI and Echo like devices will supplant, not replace the screens that we carry with us. Until of course, we can wire computers to our minds.

    Charles makes a great point of many significant issues with a voice UI. This is a truly great article.

    1. What are you thinking about Samsung? What kind of strategy should it adopt to increase the sales? Can it be a strategy focused on semiconductors because of its increasing demand? How much time should it take for Samsung to implement such kind of strategy (I mean strategic planning terms) and what kind of resources does it need (in this case: human resources, material, financial and informational resources) .

      1. The way I see it, Samsung is doing all the right things that are within its control. They are creating great hardware, investing in software, investing in the next big things in devices, and importantly, they are trying hard and taking bold bets to control their own destiny by using their own OS (Tizen) and services (Samsung Pay).

        If any non-Apple company is going to make significant profits out of devices, my bet is still on Samsung. Of course there is the possibly that devices won’t matter anymore, but my argument is that this idea is premature.

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