First Click: Apple should echo Amazon with a Siri speaker

January 14th, 2016

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People love their voice-activated Amazon Echo speakers. It currently enjoys a 4.5 out of 5 star rating from 30,000 reviews on Amazon.com, and Amazon says it topped the Everything Store’s most wished-for and gifted items in 2015. That’s not bad for a device that launched without any real purpose before backing its way into the smart home as the ultimate gee-whiz controller for automation nerds.

Last week Amazon staged a stealthy takeover of the smart home market at CES 2016 without even attending the show. Echo added Ford vehicles, Vivint security and automation systems, and Invoxia speakers to its voice-activated ecosystem, already rich with WeMo, Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, Wink, and Insteon devices. And because Vivint has a partnership with Google, Amazon’s Alexa voice service can even control Nest products by proxy. The only big name that’s missing from Echo’s voice-enabled compatibility list is HomeKit — Apple’s smart home platform.

HomeKit users can already use Siri in much the same way that Echo owners ask Alexa to turn off the lights and lock the doors. However, if Alexa can be thought of as a controller hub, then Siri is more akin to controller spokes. Small family homes typical of big cities can usually get away with a single, always-listening $180 Echo in the living room. Siri, on the other hand, requires a $700 iPhone for each family member. Sure, I guess you could stick an old iPhone in the living room to accept "Hey Siri" requests from family members, but the phone lacks the Echo’s impressive 7-mic array and far-field voice recognition technology that allows the omni-directional speaker to hear voice commands from anywhere in the room, even while playing music. And if rumors pan out, we’re about to see a smaller and cheaper Echo codenamed "Fox" that could put an Alexa speaker in every room of the house.

It wouldn’t be too hard for Apple to outfox Amazon with a Siri-based take on Echo. In fact, it’s probably something Apple should do, even if you disagree with my premise that Echo is the ultimate controller for smart homes. Siri predates Alexa by more than three years, meaning Apple's had three additional years of data collection to hone Siri's capabilities. And Apple has a long history of making speakers, first with products like the ill-fated (great sound, too expensive) iPod Hi-Fi launched in 2006, and more recently with the Echo-sized and vastly improved Beats Pill+. Apple would benefit from having a smart speaker in its lineup this fall if the iPhone 7 really does ditch the headphone jack as rumored, and investors would surely like to see Apple grab a bigger slice of the wireless speaker pie set to be worth as much as $25 billion by 2020, according to some estimates. But the opportunity is bigger still as a controller for smart devices, with related consumer spending expected to grow from $416 billion in 2015 to $1.5 trillion by 2020, according to Gartner.

It’s just a hunch, but really, what makes more sense: for Apple to leverage its Beats acquisition to build a Siri information box for the family living room that taps into HomeKit-enabled smart devices, controls the Apple TV, and plays Apple Music, or cede the market to Amazon, and later Google once it decides to flip the switch and convert its OnHub router into a smart home controller?

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