A Siri Speaker? But First…

June 1st, 2017

There’s one thing that’s certain about Apple, and that is the penchant for attacking someone else’s product before their own solution appears. It doesn’t always happen, but it’s still a potential clue that something is afoot.

Take the comments in October 2004, at a quarterly conference call for financial analysts, where it was promised, take it to the bank, that Apple won’t produce junk after being asked about building a cheap Mac. In January of 2o05, Apple introduced the original Mac mini, at $499. Sporting PowerBook-grade parts, it came without a display or keyboard, and an impossible scheme for upgrading RAM. You had to use a putty knife,  or something similar, to take it apart.

Now I suppose you could say the Mac mini wasn’t junk. But it was also a little more expensive than the very cheapest desktop PCs you could buy at a superstore. I have no idea how successful it was, but it got regular updates for years, at least until 2014 when the updates stopped. There was even a “silent” upgrade in September of that year, with a marginally faster processor.

That year, Motorola brought iTunes to the ROKR, a clumsy clamshell cell phone that had only modest success, if that. Beyond a difficult interface, music transfers were very slow. Although it was introduced with great fanfare by Steve Jobs at a Macworld keynote, it’s clear from his later comments he wasn’t happy about the state of the art in the mobile phone industry. Maybe you can see what was on his mind in retrospect.

You might as well assume the ROKR didn’t exist if you watch the playback of the launch of the iPhone in 2007. It was presented as three devices, being an iPod, a phone and an Internet device. All in one tiny case.

So here we have two Apple gadgets that were introduced after the company denigrated existing products. But you can apply the same approach to the iPad and, in fact, the iPad mini. Steve Jobs said you needed to sandpaper your fingers to use one of those 7-inch widescreen tablets. When marketing VP Philip Schiller presented Apple’s response, the 7.9-inch iPad mini, he pointed out that, using a standard aspect radio, it had far more usable screen real estate than those competing tablets. So you didn’t need super small fingers to use it.

Again, Apple’s answer to what it claimed was a subpar product.

Of course, the 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch iPhones were intended as Apple’s responses to the demand for larger displays. Before the iPhone 6 arrived, Schiller would tell you how these larger handsets were difficult to handle if you wanted to use one hand. Besides, Apple still had to build the 4-inch iPhone SE to fill the demand for smaller handsets.

You might say Apple was forced, perhaps kicking and screaming, to build a gadget that customers wanted, even if the form factor wasn’t exactly ideal. In turn, the larger iPhone is credited — or blamed — for reducing sales of the iPad mini. But Apple has never been against cannibalizing its own gear. Besides, a Plus iPhone brings in far more revenue than the smaller iPad. If the latter fades away, so be it.

Now when it comes to a smart speaker, I suppose Apple has already denigrated the product, as typified by the Amazon Echo and Google Home. Does a full-time digital assistant, which listens to everything going on in your home or office, even make sense?

So in recent comments, Schiller suggested the Echo needed a display, but that came days before Amazon introduced such a model, known as the Echo Show.

So is that an example of Apple once again denigrating a product before its own solution is due to appear?

There are published reports that production has already begun on a so-called Siri smart speaker, which is expected to be unveiled at the WWDC. While I can see the point of introducing a gadget to serve as a control center for Apple’s HomeKit, wouldn’t an iPhone or an iPad also be able to manage those functions? What about the Apple Watch?

Even if it were to happen, the choice of a venue, a developer’s conference, is curious for a gadget that appears to  be largely oriented towards consumers. One would think it would better suit the tail end of a September iPhone event, particularly if an Apple Watch Series 3 or fifth generation Apple TV is on the venue.

I suppose Apple could use the alleged Siri speaker as the focal point for a presentation of new HomeKit capabilities for developers. That might make sense. But wouldn’t that potentially apply to other Apple consumer gear, such as the Apple TV and Apple Watch?

Otherwise, the timing doesn’t make much sense, unless Apple is desperate to demonstrate it hasn’t lost its knack for innovation.

That said, we’re days away from the WWDC keynote, on June 5th, so all will come clear. Besides, I still have an inkling if there will be a demonstration of the next Mac Pro. Even if it’s just a video of a work-in-progress, this presentation would make perfect sense, and go a long way towards reassuring high-end Mac users.

| Print This Article Print This Article

3 Responses to “A Siri Speaker? But First…”

  1. dfs says:

    A couple of comments:

    a.) Apple was uncharacteristically late in getting into the Smart Home game, for a long time it gave the competition a free hand in establishing a beachhead. Now they’re scrambling to keep up. They’ve laid down a marker of sorts in the form of the Home app that now comes with the iOS, and the release of this Smart Speaker could at best be regarded as a second such marker. The message delivered by both of these would only amount to “watch this space for coming attractions” unless Apple either starts producing its own hardware and software or enters into a partnership with a very major player in this market. So far neither of these things has happened. If I were thinking of investing in SH technology Apple gives me very little motivation for holding on until they become a serious competitor in the game.

    b. The more things that Siri is asked to do, the more central it becomes in the Apple ecosystem. And the more painfully obvious it becomes that the current Siri is not up to the task. In my experience (and I suspect in yours as well) Siri’s ability to perform successful voice recognition still hovers at maybe the 50% mark, and that’s not nearly good enough. Apple urgently needs to fix this problem, since it has the capacity to ruin the credibility of the entire ecosystem. At this point, releasing a Smart Speaker will only serve to make this issue even more painfully visible.

  2. dfs says:

    In recent posts I’ve complained about two shortcomings in Apple products: the half-baked nature of the current Siri and the inability of the current iMac to drive multiple external monitors gracefully. Now that the WWDC talk has been given, it is clear that Apple recognizes the first problem and is working hard to fix it. What is not so clear is the ‘iMac Pro”. He we are going to have a super-powerful, super-expensive iMac replacing the Mac Pro (nobody saw that one coming). With four Thunderbolt ports and its own internal one, this puppy will be able to drive five monitors simultaneously. But if Apple can’t acknowledge, identify and fix the current problem, there are going to be a lot of very unhappy high-end customers.

  3. gene says:

    Except that Apple promised a new Mac Pro, but not this year. Perhaps the iMac Pro will pick up some of the customers who would normally buy the former, but not all of them. They want something modular.

    I have to think, though, where the iMac began in 1998, a $1,299 computer based on PowerBook parts. A gussied up iMac Pro, with 18 cores and all, will retail for over $10,000.

Leave Your Comment