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 

Tracing the formation of Al Qaeda and its path to 9/11

A new show looks at some of the crucial moments leading up to the attack.

“The end of the world war had bought America victory but not security” - this quote from Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, ‘The Looming Tower’, gives a sense of the growing threat to America from Al Qaeda and the series of events that led to 9/11. Based on extensive interviews, including with Bin Laden’s best friend in college and the former White House counterterrorism chief, ‘The Looming Tower’ provides an intimate perspective of the 9/11 attack.

Lawrence Wright chronicles the formative years of Al Qaeda, giving an insight in to Bin Laden’s war against America. The book covers in detail, the radicalisation of Osama Bin Laden and his association with Ayman Al Zawahri, an Egyptian doctor who preached that only violence could change history. In an interview with Amazon, Wright shared, “I talked to 600-something people, but many of those people I talked to again and again for a period of five years, some of them dozens of times.” Wright’s book was selected by TIME as one of the all-time 100 best nonfiction books for its “thoroughly researched and incisively written” account of the road to 9/11 and is considered an essential read for understanding Islam’s war on the West as it developed in the Middle East.

‘The Looming Tower’ also dwells on the response of key US officials to the rising Al Qaeda threat, particularly exploring the turf wars between the FBI and the CIA. This has now been dramatized in a 10-part mini-series of the same name. Adapted by Dan Futterman (of Foxcatcher fame), the series mainly focuses on the hostilities between the FBI and the CIA. Some major characters are based on real people - such as John O’ Neill (FBI’s foul-mouthed counterterrorism chief played by Jeff Daniels) and Ali Soufan (O’ Neill’s Arabic-speaking mentee who successfully interrogated captured Islamic terrorists after 9/11, played by Tahar Rahim). Some are composite characters, such as Martin Schmidt (O’Neill’s CIA counterpart, played by Peter Sarsgaard).

The series, most crucially, captures just how close US intelligence agencies had come to foiling Al Qaeda’s plans, just to come up short due to internal turf wars. It follows the FBI and the CIA as they independently follow intelligence leads in the crises leading up to 9/11 – the US Embassy bombings in East Africa and the attack on US warship USS Cole in Yemen – but fail to update each other. The most glaring example is of how the CIA withheld critical information – Al Qaeda operatives being hunted by the FBI had entered the United States - under the misguided notion that the CIA was the only government agency authorised to deal with terrorism threats.

The depth of information in the book has translated into a realistic recreation of the pre-9/11 years on screen. The drama is even interspersed with actual footage from the 9/11 conspiracy, attack and the 2004 Commission Hearing, linking together the myriad developments leading up to 9/11 with chilling hindsight. Watch the trailer of this gripping show below.

Play

The Looming Tower is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video, along with a host of Amazon originals and popular movies and TV shows. To enjoy unlimited ad free streaming anytime, anywhere, subscribe to Amazon Prime Video.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Amazon Prime Video and not by the Scroll editorial team.