We all know Apple’s game by now. Wait in the wings while all of the other companies fuck up while trying to innovate, and then, just when it seems almost too late, introduce a product that does the same thing as everybody else’s product, but better. This is bound to be true with the rumored Siri speaker. The idea is oddly exciting.
It’s rumoured that, on Monday, Apple will reveal this so-called Siri speaker. The voice-controlled device is supposed to be a lot like the Amazon Echo or the Google Home, except, you know, it’s an Apple product. That means it will look great, work great, and cost a great sum of money. According to rumours, it also means that it will lack some of the flashy features of the current contenders on the market. The Siri speaker probably won’t have a touchscreen, like the new Amazon Echo Show. It probably won’t have a built-in wi-fi router, like the rumored Google Home hardware update.
That’s kind of the point, though. Apple is famous for releasing first generation products that do just enough, really well. Just think about the original iPod, which celebrates its sweet 16 this year. The market was flooded with problematic MP3 players by the time Steve Jobs announced Apple’s magical solution in October 2001. Jobs himself explained how companies small and large were trying and failing to build music players.
“They haven’t found the recipe,” Jobs said at that event, moments before revealing the iPod. “No one has really found the recipe yet for digital music.”
Now get ready for the good shit.
“And we think,” Jobs continued, “not only can we find the recipe, but we think the Apple brand is going to be fantastic, because people trust the Apple brand to get their great digital electronics from.”
You can just imagine those exact same words coming out of Tim Cook’s mouth on Monday to describe Apple’s entry into the smart speaker market. Lots of companies, large and small, have tried to sell an internet-connected, voice-controlled speaker for the home. None of them are awesome. Amazon’s had the most success with Echo, largely because it was the first mega tech company to introduce a viable option. Echo gained steam as a smart home hub, too, because Amazon let virtually any company develop the capability to work with Alexa, Amazon’s half-decent, artificially intelligent assistant. And despite its relative dominance in the information space, Google’s smart speaker, blandly named “Home,” has struggled to take a bite out of Amazon’s market share.
So here comes Apple. If the Cupertino kids do announce a new piece of hardware at the WWDC conference this year, it will almost certainly be some sort of smart speaker. People are calling it the “Siri speaker,” because such a device would use Siri’s computer brain power to respond to voice commands and questions. We can also expect an upgrade to Siri, perhaps a new version that can distinguish between different voices and maintain multiple user profiles. (Google Home already does this, and Amazon is expected to release the feature soon.) Otherwise, the Siri speaker will probably do the same things as the Home and the Echo — only, hopefully, better.
After all, Apple is increasingly admitting that it’s a luxury brand. For a smart speaker, that would mean that the sound quality would far surpass the tin-can tones of an Echo. Some rumours claim that Apple actually wants to take on Sonos in offering high-quality wireless audio throughout the home with exceptional acoustics and the processing power of an iPhone 6. Meanwhile, we have to expect Apple to flex its dominance in the privacy and security spheres. As too many people clutch their pearls over the idea of an Echo recording all of their conversations, the market is definitely primed for a safe-seeming smart speaker. It will also — Jony Ive voice — be an extraordinarily beautiful object.
A design porn shot from an iPad Pro promotional video (Image: YouTube)
But this all begs the question: who’s going to buy this new Apple object? It’s not immediately obvious that people need a smart speaker in the same way that they needed a smartphone when Apple released the iPhone ten years ago. Then again, nobody needed a smartwatch when the Apple Watch came out and now it’s the number one product in the category. Is it because the Apple Watch is the very best wearable computer? Who knows. Do people trust the Apple brand to build great digital electronics? A lot of them do, yes. Even more powerful than that, however, is the fact that a lot people will buy a new gadget simply because Apple made it. Call them fanboys or girls or whatever you want, but Apple loyalists are fucking loyal.
Steve Jobs programmed them to be. From the early Mac days, the late visionary excelled at convincing people that electronics were their friends. After all, way back in 1984, the original Macintosh computer gave its own robotic but revolutionary introduction speech. “I’d like to let Macintosh speak for itself,” Jobs said, and the computer did. The crowd went wild.
We don’t know what will happen at WWDC 2017. If Apple does announce a smart speaker, maybe Tim Cook will invite Siri to make the announcement herself (itself?). There’s a good chance the device won’t be available until the autumn, a move that would echo Google’s announcing the Home last spring for an autumn release. Of course, Apple might also let us all down and announce some boring new iPad update or no new hardware at all.
But if Apple does decide to join the smart speaker circus, the company will almost certainly do it as Steve Jobs would’ve wanted. The gadget will be simple. It will be beautiful. It will work. It will sort of suck, but that’s why you have to stick around to buy the second generation — and the third and the fourth until infinity.