homeOS

Past couple of weeks marked the beginning of the next round of the battle for home. First Phil Schiller, SVP of Worldwide Marketing at Apple, shared his thoughts on voice-first interfaces and home devices, and then Amazon presented the Echo Show.

Echo Show seems to be a logical step forward for Amazon. The company has seen quite a success (especially in mind share) with the regular Echo and is now well positioned to capitalise on it and widely broaden the reach of the Alexa ecosystem, especially in home environments. Critics have been specifically praising Alexa as probably the best out of the available voice assistants for its great performance in a voice-first and voice-only paradigm — which is why Echo Show product is rather surprising. Amazon now moves into the battlefield dominated by companies providing screen-based experiences, where its position is not that strong.

The Echo Show reveal video is entertaining but puzzling. If you haven’t seen it, please do.

The more I think about it, the more I’m puzzled with this product and confused why would anyone buy and use it.

The original Echo’s killer use case is being a device that you place in your home (living room or kitchen most likely) and talk to it when you need something — learn what’s the weather outside, ask some quick question or turn off smart lights. Echo has a very good microphone and speakers and it works precisely because you know it will hear you (and you will hear it back) across the room, so there is no need to go to the corner of the room where it is placed. It also works because, again, Alexa has been designed from the beginning as the voice-only assistant, assuming you have no screen available.

Echo Show works against both of these use cases.

It is not clear from the video, but Echo Show is actually a stationary device that you need to plug into an outlet. If you would want Echo Show to be the primary video calls device in your house, first, you have to make sure you buy several of them to have one in every room of your house. Which already sounds like a questionable proposition at best. Second, even if you do it, you need to make sure that in every room Echo Show is located in an ideal spot that would make the device’s camera see the entire room, which is incredibly challenging or even impossible most of the times. If your granny calls you over and you are painting a wall, like in the promotional video, you’d better be sure she watches you in the room, not just a corner of the ceiling which the device might be facing if you place it incorrectly. And again, since it is plugged in, you are not exactly free to move it around the room in any way you want.

You have to be a very determined, hardcore Amazon Echo Show fan if you really want to spend a lot of time buying and setting up several of such devices to make sure you have a decent coverage in your home. Otherwise, it just doesn’t make any sense; it’s too much hassle and friction for many people.

Compare that to using mobile devices such as a smartphone or, even better, a tablet. I use my iPad for video calls all the time. Smart Cover helps placing iPad on a table or a shelf in such a way that I can talk to people over FaceTime without holding the device, and if I need to adjust the angle or even move to another room, I can easily do just that. The only thing that currently precludes me from using my iPad exactly like an Echo Show — that is, in a fundamentally hands-free mode — is the lack of remote “Hey, Siri” functionality, but I would be surprised if Apple doesn’t address it in the future updates.

Echo Show is the product a company would make if it is completely irrelevant on the mobile devices market. Amazon just has no other choice.

So, adding a camera and a screen to Amazon Echo doesn’t seem like a great idea, but interestingly, it seems that Apple also thinks that voice assistants should be used with screens as well. Here is what Phil Schiller had to say recently while in Bengaluru: “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… And so I think voice assistants are incredibly powerful, their intelligence is going to grow, they’re gonna do more for us, but the role of the screen is gonna remain very important to all of this”.

Rumors have it that Apple might introduce its own smart home device already this June at WWDC. I would be surprised if Apple comes up with a product with so many fundamental limitations as Echo Show. But what could it be instead? Let’s speculate and try to match the pieces of the puzzle.

What products in the ecosystem Apple already have — which Amazon does not?

  • iPhone and iPad — the mobile devices that people have with them almost all the time. People carry them around and can move from one room to another, when they are at home
  • Apple Watch — even more personal device with a little screen that you wear on you all the time
  • Apple TV — a set-top box that you connect to your home’s big screen and that also can act as your smart home hub
  • AirPort devices — a lineup of routers that Apple has not updated in a long time and that are rumored to be discontinued soon

There were rumors that the team that had been working on AirPort devices now moved on to work on some kind of smart home hub. Which makes sense — why would you buy just a router, if it can be much more than that?

Apple TV is a puzzling product in its current state. It’s clear that it has been struggling even after Apple basically relaunched it two years ago, and tvOS doesn’t seem like the best attraction for app developers. That said, even with its limited functionality and some surprising (for Apple’s products standards) interface and performance issues, it is a great device that I have been using every day for many hours since I bought the latest generation Apple TV. It has become the only way I listen to Apple Music when I’m at home. I sometimes launch YouTube and let it run random videos while I’m busy with other stuff. It’s great as a device for ambient hands-free use at home, and Apple has been investing in Siri for tvOS to make sure you can operate it with your voice. The use case that it’s lacking now, though, is its integration with Apple’s ecosystem. It’s time for Apple TV’s refresh, and WWDC might be a good time for that.

Here is a theory — what if the next Apple TV is a device that serves as the smart home hub and combines the functionality of the wireless router, a home speaker, and a TV set-top box — which also works seamlessly with all your mobile devices?

Such a device can be plugged into a wall outlet (and even your internet cable — as all routers need to), might have speakers, a microphone and maybe a camera, and it can wirelessly connect to your TV, other home speakers, and mobile devices to serve as a primary home hub. It would run a version of tvOS (maybe name it homeOS?) that would power all your content and TV needs, but will reinforce the concept of Continuity between devices in a way that current implementation of tvOS does not. When you get a notification on your iPhone, you will see it on your TV screen. When you get a FaceTime or a phone call on any of your devices, you can answer on your Apple TV if you want. If your granny calls you and you happen to be sitting on a sofa watching a movie, answering a video call on your TV would be easy (“Hey Siri, accept the call”), but if you are out in the kitchen or in another room, you always can use your iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch or whatever you have with you at the moment to take that call. If you ask Siri a question that requires showing you some data, your Apple TV will figure out (or ask) which device you are using at the moment, and will display the info you need on the screen closest to you at the time. Continuity will make sure you seamlessly switch between devices, your content, and your use cases, and the new Apple TV will be embedded into this flow.

Unlike Amazon Echo Show, such a device would be very useful in many situations and will enrich your mobile devices usage, rather than pretend that they don’t exist.

For sure, there are many challenges and caveats with this concept (I’m particularly not sure if such a device can indeed serve as the router — it would severely limit its portability in the house). But it seems a fairly logical direction for Apple TV and smart home strategy going forward. Integrating macOS, iOS, watchOS and tvOS into the singular, unified ecosystem of devices with a Siri voice control backbone which would share your use cases, your content and workflow at home seems like a logical next step, and Apple TV is clearly due for an upgrade focusing on more social and communication use cases.

The next round of the battle for home has begun.