With just weeks to go before the end of 2021, Apple has released iOS 15.2 with a new Apple Music tier that’s half the price of the Individual plan and still doesn’t have ads.
There’s a catch though: It’s voice only. That means you’ll need to use Siri for playing songs and you won’t be able to open the Music app and select songs to play from your library. Apple has curated a bunch of playlists to help people discover songs or set the mood, but you won’t be able to create your own. So while you have complete access to the full Apple Music library, it’s a decidedly different way to enjoy Apple Music that’s clearly meant for people who listen without clinging to an iPhone.
Apple has plenty of devices that are tailor-made for an Apple Music Voice Plan. The new products announced alongside the new plan at Apple’s Unleashed event, the HomePod mini and third-generation AirPods, are the most obvious fits. Both have on-device Siri that make using an iPhone necessary. In particular, the HomePod has struggled to gain much of a foothold in the crowded smart speaker market, and a cheaper voice-only Music plan could help, especially with a little incentive. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a longer trial period with HomePod mini purchases or even a full year free at some point.
There’s also the Apple Watch Series 7. With an LTE connection and Bluetooth support, the Apple Watch is already an excellent standalone listening device that doesn’t need an iPhone. The Apple Music interface on the Apple Watch is already very playlist- and Siri-dependent and the cut-rate Voice Plan makes a lot of sense for heavy Apple Watch users. And of course, CarPlay already has a Siri-enabled interface.
All of these devices seem to be the point of Apple Music Voice. Of course, the lower price will entice some subscribers that don’t want to pay $10 a month, but the main appeal of the Voice Plan is moving away from using the iPhone as the main hub for playing music. Finding and playing music is one of the things Siri already does relatively well and a voice plan will be a good showcase for its talents and an opportunity for Apple to refine its assistant’s smarts.
An iPhone-less future will need Siri to take on a more prominent role, and a cheaper Apple Music tier is a great way to persuade people to use it more—and for Apple to give Siri the attention it deserves.
Music is just the start
While the Apple Music Voice Plan is being sold as a vehicle for the products Apple sells now—AirPods, HomePod, and Apple Watch—it’s also a preview of the products it isn’t selling yet.
Rumors of an AR headset are gaining steam, with the most recent reports saying it could arrive late in 2022. And they, too, will be heavily reliant on Siri. As would an Apple Car, which may or may not arrive before 2030. Or standalone AirPods with cellular connectivity.
IDG / Jason Cross
The fact of the matter is, Apple is moving beyond not just the iPhone but also screens that you need to incessantly tap and swipe. We’re easily five or 10 years away from that reality, of course, but the Apple Music Voice Plan is a small peek into a world where Siri is the main input device. We’ve watched Siri stagnate for years while Alexa and Google Assistant took the lead, but now it seems like Apple is finally serious about bringing Siri into the forefront. The devices are there, Apple just needs a strong voice assistant to tie it all together, and Apple Music Voice is an indication that it’s working to do just that.
As you can read in our testing of the new voice plan, Siri still has a long way to go. If Apple’s AR headset project is indeed launching next year, Siri is going to need to mature quickly, because it’s just not ready to do the things we’re going to need it to do. Asking multiple times to play a song is one thing, but more advanced tasks will need Siri to have a greater level of understanding of context and personality.
But for now, Apple Music Voice is a perfectly low-stakes testing ground. Whether it succeeds or unceremoniously disappears after a couple of years, Apple’s new service is providing a sneak peek at a world where all of our devices will be connected and hands-free.
Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He's still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.