Free Siri! Why Apple should make an Echo competitor

Siri is waiting in the wings to serve you in your home.

Amazon Echo
Michael Brown

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I’ve had an Amazon Echo in my house for a few weeks now, and it’s convinced me that the best voice-controlled assistant doesn’t live in your phone or on your remote control, but in the air all around you. And that this is a place Apple—and Siri—need to be.

Even before Thursday’s report that Google may be working on an Echo competitor, I’ve been thinking that Apple should build a device like Amazon’s $180 Echo, a small speaker with integrated microphones that’s wired to a Siri-like voice agent named Alexa.

In the past few weeks, with the Echo in the house, I have conversed more with Alexa than I have with Siri in the past year. That’s in part because Siri is too often stuck in my pocket or out on a countertop, while Alexa can hear me all over my house and then speak back to me in a loud voice that my iPhone can’t muster. Unlike Siri, I don’t need to pick up my phone or walk over to where it’s docked to talk to Alexa.

It’s also because, unlike Siri, Alexa can’t cheat by displaying results on a screen. Alexa is a voice interface completely divorced from visual fallbacks; Siri all too often refers me to results that display on my phone’s screen, which is generally not what I want.

For the past few weeks I’ve been trying to imagine what Apple could bring to this sort of product. With apologies to everyone involved, here’s what I’m thinking.

Siri Speaker

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll call the product Siri Speaker—combining the well-known brand name of Apple’s digital assistant with a word that comes with a useful double meaning.

The Siri Speaker should be small, similar in size to the Echo or Sonos’s $200 Play:1 speaker. Devices like these should be placed in a prominent, central location, and space is usually at a premium there. I keep my Echo on the bar in my kitchen. When I tried the much larger $500 Sonos Play:5 in the kitchen, it was overkill—it took up too much space and I didn’t really need the extra sound a large speaker provided.

I assume that Apple would advertise the Siri Speaker as featuring integrated Beats audio, using the expertise of the Beats division to sell good sound. The Echo’s mono speaker sounds okay, but it’s not as good as the Play:1, and my guess is that Apple would want to want to boast about the good audio quality of such a product. I would also assume that, like the Echo, it would feature multiple microphones that would allow it to listen over a surprisingly large area.

I would assume that in practice, Siri Speaker would be very much like the Siri experience on the iPhone or the Apple TV. It would need to provide access to the usual data sources, and would need to be tweaked so it would read more information aloud, as it would if you were connected to Siri while driving a car.

These voice agents stand or fall based on the richness of the data sources they’re attached to. Siri Speaker would give me access to Apple Music, of course, as well as my iTunes Match library. Integration with Apple’s Podcasts app would put it one move ahead of the competition. This is the perfect device to bring Apple’s HomeKit initiative to the fore, and of course it should support AirPlay. I’d love to be able to ask Siri Speaker where my kids are and have it use Find My Friends to give me an answer. The list goes on.

Support for other non-Apple music services would be swell, but it’s hard to see Apple working hard to integrate competitors into its ecosystem. That’s why it’s important that Siri Speaker have the equivalent of an App Store, where third-party developers can build integrations for other services. (Regular Siri needs this, too.)

One of Echo’s greatest features is its ability to integrate not just with Amazon’s preferred partners, but with just about anyone who wants to build a “skill” for Alexa. My Echo natively understands the Philips Hue light bulbs I don’t own, but I can still control my LIFX bulbs (and Nest thermostat) with my voice. A device that’s locked into a few options with no ability to branch out can’t sit comfortable at the center of the home. Fortunately, Apple has great experience building platforms for third-party developers—while curating the experience carefully.

Beyond that, I’m not sure Apple needs to jam more technology into the Siri Speaker. Adding AirPort Express-like functionality, so it could function as a Wi-Fi router or repeater, would be fun—but the best place in the house for a speaker with voice control is very rarely the best place for a wireless router. And the idea of stuffing wireless base station tech in a product like this feels a bit too much like a toaster-fridge to me.

Fending off doom

Does Apple need to make a product like the Siri Speaker? No, of course not. But it seems like Siri is a set of features that is very important to Apple, given that Siri appears on iPhones, iPads, the Apple Watch, and the Apple TV. There are even rumors of the Mac getting a Siri boost in the next OS X update.

If Siri is that central to Apple’s strategy, shouldn’t it be available more centrally to all of us? The Amazon Echo works because it feels omnipresent in my house in a way that “Hey Siri” on my iPhone doesn’t. Having a smart, connected speaker (or several of them!) in your living area is also a powerful way to sell music services—I paid for Amazon’s equivalent of iTunes Match just to make my Echo work better—and that means such a product could make sense just as a Trojan Horse with Apple Music inside. (Maybe it should be called the Apple Music Speaker?)

Apple doesn’t need to make the Siri Speaker, or whatever you want to call it. But after spending a few weeks with the Amazon Echo, I have a hard time seeing why it wouldn’t want to do so. This is the sort of product that Apple could knock out of the park. I want one on my kitchen counter tomorrow.

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