Apple effect

Apple’s HomePod has entered the voice-controlled smart speaker market – with a whimper

Apple's closed system may be its undoing in the smart home market.

The war for your digital home is waging. Apple has finally followed Amazon, Google and Microsoft by launching a smart speaker with a voice-controlled artificial intelligence assistant. Yet even though the “HomePod” is another technological marvel, there’s a chance Apple is already losing the battle.

The competition isn’t just through the sound quality of the speaker – but the other things that users can do with it. The most common requests to AI personal assistants such as Apple’s Siri are reportedly to play music, read the weather forecast and set timers or reminders.

But the capabilities of these assistants are increasing at lightning speed. This doesn’t just rely on the sophistication of the artificial intelligence involved but also what other technology the assistant can link to. And given Apple’s tendency to reject open connections to other company’s systems, it may find it has some serious catching up to do.

Apple’s HomePod is entering an already busy marketplace. Probably the most famous smart speaker is Amazon’s Echo, which runs the AI assistant Alexa. Because Amazon opened up its system for anyone to write software programs for it, Alexa now has over 25,000 specific capabilities or “skills” in its US version alone, up from 5,000 just over a year ago. It can now read out recipes, order a pizza, turn on the lights or tell jokes. Partly because it was the first major smart speaker released, Echo has a greater depth of capabilities than any of its rivals.

Google Home, which features the creatively named Google Assistant, can link to multiple Google accounts so you can check your calendar or manage reminders. But it also links to your Android phone so you can make calls through the speaker or view on a screen the results of internet searches you ask it to make.

Microsoft has partnered with electronics manufacturer Harman Kardon to create a speaker called Invoke powered by Microsoft’s Cortana assistant. It also allows you to check your calendar and reminders, as well as make Skype calls, but only for one Microsoft account. Its AI capabilities are also not nearly as developed as either Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa.

Apple is taking a different approach to its rivals, hoping to corner the higher end of the smart speaker market and encourage consumers to part with more money, as it has done very successfully with its other products. The HomePod delivers high quality sound using seven physical speakers arranged in a circle to create a virtual stereo effect, directing different parts of the sound in different directions.

Virtual speaker. Photo credit: Apple
Virtual speaker. Photo credit: Apple

But HomePod isn’t really a smart speaker – not yet at least. Siri currently can’t deliver on one of those three most critical abilities, as it can only set one timer at a time. Overall it has far fewer skills than Alexa, Google Assistant or even Cortana and only works with a very small number of third-party apps.

It’s easy to assume that Apple’s technological and financial might will allow it to catch up. But the way its underlying system operates may not make it so easy. Google Assistant is available on all Android and iOS devices, as well as Chromebooks and third-party devices such as headphones. Cortana comes standard on Windows machines but it’s also available for download on Android and iOS.

Alexa is accessible through some third-party devices such as speakers (although to a lesser extent than Assistant or Cortana) and will soon be available on some Windows PCs. The most basic Amazon Echo speaker is also available for less than $40 (£40 in the UK), making it significantly cheaper than $349 HomePod. This means it is very easy for consumers to try an Echo out or even place multiple devices around their home, helping spread the technology more widely.

Apple’s Siri, on the other hand, is not available on any third-party devices. So while its rivals are spreading their AI into every corner of our lives, Apple is keeping it locked up in the company’s expensive products. And any software makers that are allowed into Apple’s walled garden have to custom develop their products for the underlying Apple platform but can’t even deploy them across all devices. Apple would need to mobilise a considerable number of developers to enlarge its capabilities beyond this.

The competition for voice-controlled smart devices has really only just begun, and smart homes will soon be followed by AI in our cars and offices. As such, each player has its own advantages. Amazon can get anything delivered to you. Google is already known for being able to answer almost any question and help you get from A to B. Microsoft products can be found in almost every workplace.

While these firms each want to become your assistant everywhere, Apple is betting instead on your love of sound quality. But getting the right answers matters to consumers – and at the moment it looks like Siri doesn’t even understand the questions. If Apple continues to stick to its closed system, it’s hard to see how it will ever start to win again.

Bettina Büchel, Professor of Strategy and Organisation, IMD Business School.

This article appeared on The Conversation.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.