The Apple Echo? Apple Trying To Find Its Footing In a Post-Mobile World

This week the Information published a report indicating Apple may be working on a competitor to Amazon's Echo.  

Seeing the news yesterday morning, I tweeted my thoughts about Apple becoming something of a fast-follower in a post-mobile world, to which IHS analyst Lee Ratliff asked:

It's a fair question, and since a tweet's 140 characters leave little room for context, let me use the more expansive format of a blog to explain what I mean: While the world of computing is decidedly mobile today, the epicenter of new technology innovation has moved beyond mobile devices like smartphones to the things and systems that surround us, new interfaces with which to access those things, and the AI and machine learning layers being built into and around those things. In other words, the ground has shifted dramatically since the launch of the iPhone nearly a decade ago, and it's a world in which Apple has yet to find their footing

What makes the idea of Apple emulating Amazon and the Echo all the more frustrating for Apple followers is that Apple had a first-arriver advantage with the first mass-market voice recognition and virtual assistant technology in Siri over five years ago, but has seemed altogether too happy to let Siri exist in stasis as little more than an iPhone feature. Why? Hard to tell, but a combination of Apple becoming somewhat complacent in recent years in their position as the premium smartphone vendor, a seeming lack of natural strength around cloud services and focus on new hardware categories like the Apple Watch all could be partially to blame.  

While Apple let Siri atrophy, Amazon saw the opportunity to layer voice into a device designed for the home, with important feature sets like advanced far-field listening capabilities. They also saw voice as the right interface to tap into a fairly open AI development platform in Alexa, with which they've actively been fostering an rapidly growing ecosystem of developers to build out the Skills library. 

In one sense, Amazon has started to do with it's voice and AI platform is what Apple did with its apps. Apple helped us all think differently about apps and let us see the potential, and now Amazon is doing the same with voice and AI. The Alexa Skills marketplace is really just first scaled app store for voice and AI.

So now that it appears maybe Apple is waking up to the reality of the situation, will it be enough? Too soon to know, but there's no doubt they have significant catchup to to do. Marco Arment had a thoughtful piece last week that looked at how Apple was falling behind others like Facebook, Amazon and Google in critical new areas like AI and big data. He highlights the widening gap between Apple and Google in AI and big data services, and suggests that if Google's bets here turn out to be the right ones, Apple could face a similar fate of obsolescence as we saw happen to Blackberry, the company that Apple almost singlehandedly turned from market leader to afterthought.

From his post:

"But if Google’s right, there’s no quick fix. It won’t be enough to buy Siri’s creators again or partner with Yelp for another few years. If Apple needs strong AI and big-data services in the next decade to remain competitive, they need to have already been developing that talent and those assets, in-house, extensively, for years. They need to be a big-data-services company. Their big-data AI services need to be far better, smarter, and more reliable than they are."

Marco's post made me think of something I'd written a few months ago where I suggested Sonos was in danger of becoming the Blackberry of the connected home, which was a follow-on piece to one I wrote about how I thought Apple could do itself - and Sonos - a big favor by acquiring the iconic wireless speaker maker. The point of my Apple-Sonos post was that a marriage of the two could help shore up significant weaknesses for both around their respective connected home strategies, but as Marco rightly points out, Apple's bigger existential threat is falling behind in the key areas of core technology development needed to assure its preeminent position as one of the most valuable companies on the planet over the next decade.

In today's world, while staking out important device categories in the home - like a voice enabled wireless speaker - is important, it's maybe more important to develop the right enabling technologies and services strategy. While Amazon's Alexa Skills strategy and Google comprehensive efforts across AI and big data are still works in progress, they at least feel as if the companies are staking out the right ground to assure relevance into the future. In contrast, Apple is still feeling its way around, and while the report in the Information appears to suggest they're at least evolving their connected home strategy (and perhaps even more importantly opening up Siri to developers), let's hope their also working developing the right technologies to let them continue reassert themselves as market leaders over the next decade instead of being relegated to technology market fast-followers. 

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