If you haven’t had a chance to play with the Amazon Echo , definitely check it out. It’s an amazing glimpse into the future of voice control and AI. While still early and far from perfect, the Echo is quickly becoming a staple in millions of homes as a music player, news source, verbal search engine, and nascent IoT controller. But it doesn’t yet have access to your personal information, not like Apple does.
Your iPhone on the other hand contains your calendar, text messages, contacts, and so much more. As a result, Siri has long been equipped to read and dictate your messages, make phone calls to your mother, or provide stats on your fitness progress via the Health app. People complain Siri isn’t very good, but the reality is she’s just been misused as a result of being embedded in your phone.
The Apple Echo
But what if Siri weren’t stuck in your phone? What if Apple released a product akin to Amazon’s Echo, an always-listening device in your kitchen or living room, with the same functionality Siri already has? Imagine sitting on your coach and saying, “Hey Siri, can you send dad a text that dinner will be ready in 30 minutes?” or “Hey Siri, do I have anything going on this weekend?” Without touching a device you have access inconceivable from Alexa.
But let’s take it a step further. Apple has the ability to interoperate devices. For example, “Hey Siri, is the new Game of Thrones season available?” “Yes Dave, would you like me to play it in the kitchen?” While HomeKit isn’t well adopted, Apple could just as easily broadcast to your phone or your computer. “Hey Siri, can you pull up the menu for Per Se on my MacBook?”
Can they do it?
So what would this require? For starters, you would need a good speech recognition system. Apple already has this. Next, you would need to understand keyword spotting, which again Apple has figured out. Then you need good far-field microphones, which we can only assume Apple can do. Next you would need beautiful industrial design, which might as well be a given. Distribution, marketing, and manufacturing would be child’s play for Apple. Throw in a camera, long lasting battery life, and sensors and you have a pretty compelling piece of hardware. The best part? You have most of the same technology in an iPod touch, which sells for under $200, making this an easy competitor on price to the Echo (although let’s be honest, even if it were twice the price you’d still buy one).
But is there a clear business case? I would argue yes. First off, this only increases the reliance on Apple products in the home, making it harder for a family to switch away from their iPhone for Android. Second, if the Echo really sold over 3MM units, we have to assume Apple will match or exceed that number. 3MM units at $200 would retail $600MM, which might not be a lot for Apple, but it’s more than they’ve been rumored to sell of the Apple Watch. With 124.6MM households in the US alone, there’s no reason this number can’t be much, much larger than 3MM.
So why not do it? For one, Apple likes to be a leader in a market, not a me-too brand. After the Apple Watch failed to take off following earlier launches of Android watches, this would be strike two for Tim Cook. But if it does succeed, Apple could leap frog Amazon and really begin to drive voice control and the smart home forward. Reason two, it’s not yet clear people want this. The press has hyped the Echo nearly calling it a gift from God, but it’s unclear whether mass consumer adoption will happen. And finally, there’s always an opportunity cost. If they launch an Echo-type device, it means not launching something else. And that something else might be an Apple Car, some form of new wearable, hardware to compete with Nest, or any number of other products.
Only time will tell if they decide to do it, but I for one think they’d be foolish not to at least seriously consider the opportunity. And there’s no reason it has to be just like the Echo …
This was written by Alex Capecelatro, Co-Founder & CEO of JStar. Previously, Alex was a research scientist for NASA, Sandia National Lab, and the NRL. Before that, Alex worked at Fisker Automotive and founded At The Pool and Yeti. Alex has an engineering degree from UCLA, lives in LA, and likes to tweet about AI, Startups, and Design.