The star of last week’s Apple event was clearly the iPhone 7, the Cupertino titan’s latest, greatest, and most headphone jack-less invention.
But Apple also gave us a tantalising glimpse at a possible future for computing in the form of the AirPods — a $159 pair of wireless earbuds that provide one-touch access to the Siri digital voice assistant and everything she can do.
With the imminent iOS 10 update, Siri can even work with other apps to send WhatsApp messages and more.
It’s a great way to train people to keep their AirPods in their ears, all the time, as Apple (hopefully) convinces people that Siri is the best way to get things done without spending their lives glued to a phone screen.
And it’s the right place at the right time for Apple, as the technology industry increasingly turns to artificial intelligence and voice controls to build better, more humane ways of interacting with computers that more closely mimic the way that real humans communicate information.
That’s great news for non-technical people, who find it easier to talk than to work out the latest changes to their iPhone. It might be better news for Apple, since you need at least an iPhone to really take advantage of this vision of an omnipresent smart assistant that’s always in your ears.
It’s a baby step into so-called “audible computing,” and it could be the next big thing.
The problem is that Apple already has competition here in the form of Amazon and its Echo smart speaker. It means that sooner rather than later, Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant and Apple’s Siri are going to go to war to be the digital assistant that helps you organise your life and get things accomplished.
The world according to Alexa
The Amazon Echo smart speaker launched in November 2014 to little fanfare, but it would go on to great success: The Information recently reported that Amazon is on track to sell 3 million Echo speakers in 2016, and is estimating sales of around 10 million by the end of 2017, which would make it about a $1 billion business.
Echo’s appeal comes down to its passivity. It’s a little canister that sits on an end table or a kitchen counter or an entertainment system, and it sits totally idle and unobtrusive until you need something. Then, you call on Alexa, the smart voice assistant baked into the Echo, and ask for what you need out loud.
Much like Siri, Amazon’s Alexa can control your compatible smart appliances to dim the lights and open the blinds. And Alexa works with outside apps, too, so you can use Echo to check your Capital One balance or read your latest Twitter posts.
Also like Siri, Alexa is going everywhere. Alexa lives on the Amazon Fire TV, and she’s coming to BMW, too. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to have Alexa in your home and your car, giving traffic updates and reminding you of calendar conflicts.
The main thing Alexa can’t do that Siri can is follow you around once you leave your home or car and start to live your life.
Fire Phone, Amazon’s one and only play at building a smartphone, was a famous flop. That means that Amazon doesn’t really have a way for you to carry Alexa in your pocket. And the other devices in the Echo family, the Tap and the Dot, are still designed to be used at home, not exactly on the go.
Apple’s future sounds
Thanks to the massive success of the iPhone, Siri is “living” on hundreds of millions of devices that people carry with them every single waking moment of every single day.
The problem is that when people are home, they don’t necessarily want to take their phone out just see the Yankees score or find out the weather for the next day. This has been the strength of the Echo: It’s so passive, you can just call out and get an answer without moving a muscle.
Apple clearly observed the same phenomenon. But instead of building a direct Echo competitor, as Google has, Apple’s ambition was to build a set of headphones — the AirPods — that are so comfortable and lightweight, you’ll ideally never want to take them off. And since they’re cordless, you wouldn’t really need to.
And since the AirPods link to your iPhone, which is always in your pocket, or your Mac, which you’re using to get work done, Siri is always available, whether you’re at the dining room table or on a long nature hike. If you have an Apple gadget and the AirPods, Siri is only ever a tap away.
Looking forward, as AirPods and the wireless headphones they inspire mature and evolve, it’s not hard to imagine a new kind of App Store for audio apps — apps that use the iPhone’s intelligence to make the people around you sound like the parents from “Peanuts,” maybe, or more active ones that let you rewind the last 30 seconds of a conversation.
Amazon vs. Apple
The end-goal here is the same for both Apple and Amazon — take control of the still very young market for voice assistants by using hardware to build the best possible experiences. As smartphone sales flatten out, there’s opportunity arising to build the next big thing.
Both approaches have their pluses and minuses: Apple’s approach means Siri will be with you, always, at the cost of needing to have AirPods in your ear. Meanwhile, Amazon’s philosophy doesn’t have any impact on your fashion sense, but it’s limited to your home and, if you’re lucky enough to drive a BMW, your car.
Perhaps more importantly, the omnipresence of Apple’s Siri may come off as invasive, especially as people get used to this new way of doing things. Or, alternatively, people will embrace the AirPod-driven wireless future, and Echo will be obsolete before it could really make something of itself.
Right now, the market is young enough that there’s room for both. But the technology market is exploring all kinds of possible futures for computing, from this kind of speech-driven interface to holograms and virtual reality. As during any big shift like this, there will be winners and losers.
Perhaps the largest struggle ahead, for Apple, at least, is to build out Siri’s popularity, since the vast majority of iPhone users still don’t use her regularly.
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.
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