Some Thoughts on the Hypothetical Apple Echo Competitor

The Verge recently ran an article speculating that Apple will release its Echo competitor at WWDC. I’ve got a few thoughts about this.

First, I’m happy to see that rumor sites are starting to treat the existence of an Apple device that competes with the Echo as a certainty. Apple’s always been so hesitant to release new products that part of me has wondered if they will even enter this space. An Apple Siri/AirPlay device makes a lot of sense for those of us invested in iCloud based services.

Second, I think such a product could provide a real test for Apple’s design chops. I’m sure the industrial design will be very … well … Apple but I’m more curious to see how they implement a voice-only operating system. We’ve got an example of that right now in the iPhone Siri but a device that plugs in the wall with always-on power and released from the power constraints you get with mobile devices could be interesting.

Third, I think the existence of a such a product would signal Apple opening Siri up further for third party development. I don’t mean I think Apple would open it up to third parties the way Amazon has but I do think a product like this would only make sense if Apple were simultaneously opening up more categories of applications with Siri hooks. An obvious one would be audio controls. If I could use such a device to start a podcast in Overcast or a playlist in the Sonos app, things could get interesting.

Finally, Apple’s Echo competitor could be fundamentally different because of the simple existence of iOS. We’ve all already got iPhones, iPads, and Apple TV’s around our homes and Apple would be foolish not to try and leverage that fact into such a device. As one example, think about how Apple now let’s you bounce television programs from your Apple TV to you iPad. Why wouldn’t you be able to bounce a podcast from the Apple Echo-thingy to your iPhone?

Will Apple announce such a product at WWDC? I’ve got no clue. I could make the case for it if they truly are expanding Siri hooks with iOS 11 but I don’t think Apple is all that eager to release hardware at WWDC, especially now that they have their own theater on campus. If I was a betting man, I’d say a product like this gets its own event.

The Amazon Echo

For about a month now I’ve been using an Amazon Echo in my home. The Echo is the most interesting thing to come out of Amazon’s tech labs since the first Kindle. The Echo is a cylindrical speaker and microphone array about the size of two soup cans stacked on top of one another. The microphones are always listening and the device is connected to the Internet so anytime you say the word “Alexa” followed by a question or command, the Echo kicks in and does its best to obey. For instance I can say, “Alexa, what’s the weather today?” and the device is smart enough to figure out where I’m at and tell me the weather or “Alexa, turn off the kitchen lights” and my kitchen Hue lights will go dark. It’s a lot like Siri but instead of a device on your wrist or in your pocket, it’s a small Bluetooth speaker in your house.

In fact the device is so much like Siri that once I unpacked mine, my initial reaction was to put it back in the box and send it back. Nevertheless, I kept it for a few days to see why so many Apple fans also love their Amazon Echos.

After using it a few days, I began to see the light. There are a few important distinctions between the Echo and Siri. The most important of those is reliability. In the month I’ve been using it, the Echo has not misunderstood me yet. Sometimes it still can’t answer me because I’ve asked it something that it can’t do (like when I asked it to add 13 days to February 7) but if I’m asking a question or giving a command that the Echo is programmed to handle, it always does. As an example, while writing this article I asked “Alexa, what day of the week was February 7, 2016” and it replied, nearly instantly, “Sunday”. I then asked the same question of Siri and it transcribed my question as “What Dave of the week was February 7, 2016” and Siri explained it couldn’t answer my question. The second time I asked, Siri got it right but Alexa got it the first time and that makes all the difference

The Echo is also fast. There are probably only seconds between the Echo and Siri response times but it is noticeable. Between the speed and reliability, I feel more comfortable asking Alexa questions because I’m not worried about whether or not the Echo will stop and think for long seconds before screwing up. That trust means I use it more often. Siri needs to get to that point. Part of me feels that if the Apple Watch were more responsive, I’d be less impressed with the Amazon Echo but the fact is there is a lag in the watch activating and using Siri.

Another nice benefit of the Amazon Echo is that it can learn new tricks. The Alexa app has additional “skills” that can be added to the Echo. I’ve added skills that let me find out when the International Space Station will fly over my house and another one that will answer any questions with a Magic 8-ball answer. I even have enabled the ability to check on my car’s gas, location, and trip distance through my Automatic adapter. The integration with Hue lights is also better and more reliable than Apple’s HomeKit. The Echo also connects to the IFTTT service and that really opens up possibilities.

There is something to this always present assistant. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really play all that nice with Apple gear. Since I keep my calendar in iCloud and it only supports Google calendar, I can’t use any of its scheduling features. Likewise you can add items to the Alexa app’s reminders and shopping lists but not directly to the Reminders app. I was able to get around that with some IFTTT rules, shown below.

The speaker in the Echo is fine but it really doesn’t hold a candle to my Sonos speakers and it doesn’t support Apple Music. It does support Prime Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn. The speaker in my Echo is only used for Alexa’s voice.

This is the first voice-only interface device I’ve used and while still quite rudimentary in a lot of ways, it is pretty remarkable that I can use it every day without ever typing in text or seeing a screen. Not only that, my family is in on the act now too. The commands are easy and just common sense enough for just about anybody to use it. I think it their comfort with the Echo is a result of the device’s reliability and the fact there are no steps to activate or screens to look at. Simply speak your request.

Apple should really make something like the Amazon Echo. (I’m not the first person to think that.) Because the device is plugged in, they don’t have to worry about battery saving and I think that makes the immediacy of the microphones and responses just that much quicker and, as a result, the device that much more useful. I still use Siri every day but I didn’t ship the Amazon Echo back either.

As I was finishing up this post, Amazon announced a second Echo-type product, the Echo Dot, which has the same features but a much less impressive speaker. At $90, the Dot is substantially less than the $180 Echo.