AI powered smart speakers are one of the hottest new products right now.
Advocates argue that they will transform how people use computers at home, letting you control your music, check your schedule, get the news and more, using only your voice.
Amazon and Google are both getting in on the action, with the Echo and the Google Home respectively — but Apple is nowhere to be seen.
However, that might not be the case for long.
Rumours are swirling that Apple is secretly building a smart speaker of its own to take on its rivals — and it might even be unveiled this summer. It’d be the biggest hardware launch from the company in years.
Apple almost never comments on unannounced products and speculation, so don’t expect it to confirm anything. But with that in mind, here’s what people are saying about the alleged device.
It’ll be powered by Siri
Apple might not have a smart speaker on the market, but that doesn’t mean it’s sleeping when it comes to AI assistants. The Californian company offers Siri — an virtual assistant that helps you use your devices — on the iPhone, Macs, and Apple TV.
It’s likely Siri that will play the central role in any Apple smart speaker, just like how Amazon’s Alexa controls the Echo, and Google Assistant powers the Google Home device. Tell it what to do, and it does it. Reports to this effect have been circulating at least since May 2016.
Apple might emphasise sound quality
Back in September 2016, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman reported that a prototype of the device was being tested by Apple engineers.
A key selling point? Sound quality. The company is reportedly exploring beefing up its speakers and microphones “to differentiate itself.”
It’d make it a higher-end device than its rivals, which is in keeping with Apple’s historic strategy.
More recently, reliable Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said the device’s speaker array will consist of one woofer and seven tweeters.
It might have facial recognition
Another interesting detail from the Bloomberg report: Apple has experimented with facial recognition sensors for the device. This could let it identify who is around it and tailor its behaviour accordingly. CNET, citing “people familiar with Apple’s plans,” previously also reported Apple is looking at using facial recognition technology, using the info to adjust lights and music.
It could have a screen
Historically, the Echo and Google Home have been screenless devices. The only way to use them is via your voice. But the Apple smart speaker, if and when it ships, might come with a screen.
Why? There’s no definite evidence it will have one — but a recent interview from Apple exec Phil Schiller hinted at the idea. “There’s many moments where a voice assistant is really beneficial, but that doesn’t mean you’d never want a screen. So the idea of not having a screen, I don’t think suits many situations,” he said, when asked what he thought of rival smart speakers.
In the context of rumours about Apple’s plans, this isn’t just Schiller speculating about a product category the company has no interest in. It’s an Apple executive hinting at what it considers important features of an (alleged) upcoming product.
Plus, competitors are also waking up to the benefits of having a screen on a smart home device. Amazon now is launching an updated version of Alexa that comes with a screen built in.
There might be two of them
The Amazon Echo comes in two sizes — the Echo, and the smaller Echo Dot. Analyst Ming-Chi Kuo expects Apple to ultimately follow a similar model, writing: “We predict Apple’s first home AI product will see cyclical shipments (around 12-18 months) of over 10-12mn units. Like Amazon Echo, more extended models could be launched going forward (e.g. we think W1 chip is very suitable for products similar to Amazon Echo Dot), so there may be further shipments growth potential.”
That said, it’s not clear if Apple would announce two right away.
It may be announced as soon as this summer
Apple’s smart speaker might drop much sooner than people are expecting. Ming-Chi Kuo reckons it could be announced in June, at Apple’s WWDC developers’ conference, and start selling in the second half of 2017. He believes it will be a premium product — going for more than the Amazon Echo.
The launch of a smart speaker would be a major event for Apple, and CEO Tim Cook. Since becoming CEO in 2011, Cook has only overseen the launch of one new major product category — the Apple Watch, a smartwatch. But buzz around AI assistants is continuing to grow, and if Apple wants Siri to be viable, it arguably needs to stop competitors like Amazon and Google stealing a march on it.
“The market for home AI products (supporting voice assistance and IoT functions) is growing too rapidly for Apple to ignore,” Ming-Chi Kuo wrote.