Recently, I’ve been reading rumors that Apple is working on a new device, one that utilizes both Siri and AirPlay, intended to be Apple’s answer to the Amazon Echo. If the rumors are correct, we should see this device before the end of the year, maybe as soon as next month at WWDC.
I purchased an original Echo when it was still in the “available only by invitation” stage and have since added two Echo Dots. They remain my favorite technology purchases of the past few years. The Echo is not perfect, far from it. I wish it could answer more questions more intelligently. But, when it’s pumping gas on all cylinders, it is magical.
So what would it take to get me to abandon the Echo in favor of Apple’s rumored competitor? The answer is “a lot.” Frankly, I’m not sure Apple is up to the task.
Apple does have a couple of “built-in” advantages.
The biggest one is that an Apple device would almost certainly integrate better with all my other Apple equipment (Macs, iPhones, iPads, Apple TVs). That won’t matter to those who are not entrenched in the Apple ecosystem, but it’s a big one for me.
Second, I expect that Apple’s device will protect my privacy better than the Echo does (indeed, the Echo has been criticized as being more of an Amazon marketing tool than a personal assistant). But I made my peace with this awhile back and have, so far, not regretted it.
It’s also true that Apple has a history of achieving great success with products that were not first out-of-the-gate. Apple often spins this as an advantage: “We may not be first. But that’s because we have patience. We wait until we can get it right. We don’t want to sell something that’s a beta version of what we intend to finish years from now — just to be first. And users reward us for this.”
This strategy has certainly worked well in several instances. The perfect example is the original iPod. The iPod was not the first mp3 player to come to market. But it was the first to do so in a way that made using an mp3 player enjoyable for just about anyone, not just geeks. The combination of a hard drive, a click wheel, an LCD screen and syncing with iTunes — was the equivalent of an earthquake on the landscape.
A similar statement could be said about the iPhone, which again was not the first smartphone to arrive. It offered critical advantages that rendered competing products immediately obsolete. This catapulted it to success.
In my opinion, that’s what Apple will need to do once again if it hopes to overcome the Echo’s inertia advantage of a several year head start. This is the crux of the problem: What exactly can Apple do, at this point, that would make their new product even close to the equivalent of the arrival of the iPod?
Frankly, I can’t imagine anything Apple can do here. Perhaps that is a symptom of my limited imagination. After all, I didn’t picture the iPod in my head back before Apple released it. But I suspect the problem today is not with my imagination. Rather it is with the realities of how good the Amazon Echo currently is. At best, Apple has a steep uphill climb ahead of it.
Beyond adding critical new features, Apple also has to overcome some deficiencies in its current Siri implementation. In particular, “Hey Siri” has never worked as reliably as “Alexa.” Half the time, even if I say “Hey Siri” while standing over my iPad, nothing happens. In contrast, the Echo responds almost 100% of the time, even if I am in another room.
Maybe Apple has more time to “get it right” than I imagine. Maybe Apple can gain a foothold this year and slowly work to overtake the Echo. Again, I doubt it. In this regard, I look at the Apple TV. When it came out, it was in even better positioned than an Echo competitor would now be. One could claim the Apple TV was the first product of its type. But Apple never fully capitalized on this advantage. While it continued to debate what to do with its “hobby” project, along came Roku, Chromecast, Fire and others. Apple TV is now an also-ran in the “streaming video device” market, far from the dominant figure. If Apple had never released the Apple TV years ago and came out with it today, it would likely fail — perhaps saved from oblivion only because of its unique integration with iTunes. This seems closer to what Apple’s Echo competitor is facing than the iPod comparison.
I look forward to seeing what Apple has hidden behind its curtain. I still get pumped about the prospect of great new products from Apple. I previously expressed hope that Apple would eventually release an Echo competitor. It looks as if this may finally happen. Still, I am pessimistic about the likely result. I will be happy to be wrong. But I’m not counting on it.