We Should Take the Apple Smart Speaker Rumors Seriously

Tweet-Apple-to-Compete-With-Amazon-Echo

Twitterverse is abuzz about a a tweet by Sonny Dickson about a forthcoming Amazon Echo competitor from Apple. Sonny traffics in leaks for tech and automotive products so many people are giving his proclamations about Apple smart speaker rumors some credence.

Some more detail later emerged through Tweets by Mashable’s Jen Ryall presumably after connecting directly with Sonny.

The Timing Makes Sense

The timing of the leak is important. Apple is expected to make numerous product and software announcements at its annual Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) starting June 5th in San Jose. Last year, Google Home was announced at Google IO in May, a similar event to WWDC but for Android and Google developers. The announcement was followed by the formal product release in November just in time for Christmas sales.

Consider this. People are buying Google Home and Amazon Echo devices today and will continue to do so throughout the year. At Christmas, many people will be looking for that new item to gift to family and friends. But, there is less pressure to find the new thing for gifts or to buy for yourself before the Holiday season. An announcement could mean that Apple users delay an Echo purchase and wait for the Apple offering. This is a classic marketing tactic for late product entries called “freezing the market.” A VoiceLabs survey suggested that only 11% of households expect to purchase smart speaker voice assistants from more than one company. Getting consumers to delay an Echo purchase may be important to Apple.

How Beats May Help Apple’s Smart Speaker Strategy

The Beats brand may also be a useful advantage to Apple. The GfK consumer survey found that 63% of Amazon Echo owners claim to use it for music listening and ranked it the most popular use case. This is largely consistent with the Experian survey from 2016 showing that music listening was the second most popular Echo feature to try. The Amazon Music Unlimited service attempts to fill that need and its leader, Steve Boom, expects to be the fastest growing music streaming service globally reports The Verge. Echo users also can access Spotify and Pandora if they prefer.

Subscription Streaming Service Market Share

Image credit: Pitchfork.com

Apple has Apple Music which it would also like to grow and also has the Beats 1 streaming radio station. If tabletop voice assistants are going to be predominantly smart speakers used for audio entertainment, Apple wants that prominent presence in the home. The more consumers see these devices as smart speakers, the more the Beats brand will help because it is already associated with audio fidelity. Expect this to be a big line of promotion emphasis when and if Apple does launch a new product.

Does Apple Need a Smart Speaker?

There has been much speculation about how Apple will play in the personal voice assistant space. David Beisel of NextView Ventures made the case that the Apple AirPods bluetooth headphones and Apple Watch were directly competing products to Amazon Echo because Siri was always listening and ready to act. This may be true. If you have a voice assistant in your ear or on your wrist at all times, then why would you need a device that isn’t portable? However, people are increasingly seeing the “smart speaker” or “digital home assistant” (DHA) as an important category to have a presence. Voice-driven computing in the ambient environment is likely to become commonplace. Tech journalist Mike Elgan even expects microphones to be embedded in lightbulbs so we always have convenient access to a voice assistant when we are in a building.

If Apple Smart Speaker Rumors Are True, What Does it Mean?

If Apple does deliver a smart speaker this year, it will have the most robust portfolio of voice-enabled products. The iPhone, Apple Watch, Airpods and smart speaker would be a complete product set. The iOS angle to the rumor means that Apple voice-enabled products could be used for voice along with visual display and facial recognition integration from day one. The company also has access to around a billion Apple users globally that would appreciate an integrated experience across devices. And, Siri supports over 20 languages and has multiple dialects within several of those. That could be an advantage for rapid global roll out.

However, Siri may be the weak link in the system. It’s natural language understanding (NLU) has thus far been inferior to offerings from Amazon and Google. The consumer voice experience rests on reliable speech meaning understanding and not just speech recognition. So, if Apple does come to market with a smart speaker this year, it will have many advantages to exploit. It will also need to ensure Siri can match the competition.

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