Should Apple make a standalone Siri device? [Friday Night Fights]

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Would you buy a smart speaker powered by Siri?
Would you buy a smart speaker powered by Siri?
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Apple might have popularized virtual assistants, but Siri has fallen behind in recent years as rivals like the Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and even Microsoft Cortana pull ahead with greater capabilities and unique features.

Friday Night Fights bugOne area in which Siri is lacking is in standalone devices like smart speakers, such as Google Home and Amazon Echo. Isn’t it about time Apple caught up with a smart speaker of its own powered by Siri?

Join us in this week’s Friday Night Fight as we throw punches over a Siri speaker.

Killian Bell FNFKillian Bell: Apple made Siri more open with iOS 10, finally allowing it to take on some of the capabilities offered by rival services like the Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa — such as integration with third-party services. But there’s one thing Siri is lacking, and that’s a standalone speaker like Google Home or Amazon Echo.

Given Apple’s desire to take over our homes with HomeKit, and the Apple TV serving as a central hub, I don’t understand why it hasn’t launched a Siri speaker already. The device would be ideal in a home or office setting, allowing multiple people to interact with Apple’s virtual assistant even if they don’t own their own iOS device. It could give Siri an even greater opportunity to play an important role in our daily lives.

Why do you think Apple is yet to do this while other smart speakers have been so successful?

Luke Dormehl FNFLuke Dormehl: I’m torn on this. The Amazon Echo is a brilliant device. It’s a great example of a company creating a market for a product, seemingly out of nowhere — and has gained a lot of the buzz in the tech world that notably hasn’t gone to the Apple Watch. So why don’t I think Apple should launch one?

There are a few reasons. For starters, the Echo wouldn’t be a quarter of the product it is if it didn’t work as well as it does. I bought one for my tech-phobic dad for Christmas, and if he couldn’t have got it to understand him pretty quickly, he’d just have stopped using it. It works really well, however, and now it’s something he used every day. Apple, on the other hand, has had more than five years since Siri debuted, and it hasn’t proven that it can deliver a voice AI assistant that works as well as it should. Google, Amazon, even Microsoft have all overtaken Apple in this area — and until it can get Siri to work well enough that it can be relied on, it shouldn’t think about making it the selling point of a standalone device. I just don’t think people trust Siri enough.

The next point is that Apple hasn’t proven that it would really get behind it in the way it would need to. The Echo proved to me that this is the way that we’re going to interface with our smart homes in the years to come. Apple’s got HomeKit, so it should be a natural fit, right? Again, that’s in theory. In reality, Apple has only paid the merest bit of lip service to the smart home. Absolutely no-one is talking about HomeKit right now. If Apple intends to make it HomeKit a big part of a standalone Siri (as it should), it needs to demonstrate that it can deliver what it promises. I guess it could be a fancy Apple Music remote but, truth be told, I don’t hear too many people buzzing about Apple Music, either.

Privacy is also a massive concern. It’s something Apple’s really talked up, and even battled the FBI over. There are plenty of security nightmares I could see Apple having with a standalone Siri, including from an AI perspective. Google, for instance, is happy to mine data to make its services more powerful. Apple’s said that it’s not. And don’t even get me started on the potential negative backlash if Apple, as rumored, debuts a Siri with facial recognition technology.

Ultimately, I’d just like to see Apple focus on fixing its existing products before diving into a new area. The iPhone, iPad and Mac products all have big improvements that could be made right now. The 1990s Apple fan in me loves the idea of crazy tech experimentation, but I just don’t want to see Apple half-ass its entry into another market, rather than sorting out its core services. Besides, as much as you and I talk about Echo, it’s sold like than 10 million (probably closer to 5 million) units in two years. Is this really the next mass market product Apple wants to focus on?

Killian Bell FNFKillian: If Apple has enough confidence in Siri to pre-install it on hundreds of millions of iPhones — by far its most popular product — then it should have enough confidence to integrate it into a smart speaker. Apple obviously believes Siri is just as good as the rest, so that’s not a reason why it hasn’t developed a standalone device already. And people don’t need to trust Siri; they trust Apple, and some fans will buy anything with an Apple logo.

I appreciate that Apple hasn’t invested in HomeKit as we expected it to, but that’s another reason why a standalone speaker that improves the HomeKit experience is a good idea. If you want to interact with smart devices, but you left your iPhone charging by your bed, a Siri speaker that’s always in your kitchen or living room is a great way to do that.

As for the privacy thing, I don’t see how Siri in a speaker is any different to Siri on iPhone. What are these security nightmares you foresee? And why don’t they apply to iOS devices?

I agree that other Apple products need fixing, but the company can’t stand still while the improvements are carried out. Its rivals are already way ahead, not only in smart speakers, but also in areas like virtual reality, and Apple needs to catch up. It can’t rely solely on upgrades to existing products. This is a company that’s famous for being ahead of the curve and revolutionizing product categories — not catching up with rivals when it’s too late.

As for sales, smartwatches weren’t selling anywhere near as well as smart speakers before Apple entered the market with Apple Watch. That shouldn’t matter. Apple has an ecosystem of devices — something Amazon doesn’t have — that could work alongside that smart speaker to make it even more useful and therefore even more popular.

Luke Dormehl FNFLuke: As I say, it’s difficult. For me, a standalone Siri would have been a much more sensible move than an Apple Watch. I’m still not convinced about smartwatches as a user category, whereas a standalone Siri should fit perfectly into Apple’s product line as part of the wider ecosystem.

The problem is whether or not Apple has a good enough service to offer. If it thinks that Siri is as good as it could be, as you seem to suggest, then I’d suggest it’s mistaken. Try asking similar questions to Siri and Alexa, and it’s not even close in terms of which provides you with better answers. I do use Siri, but there are very few times it gets exactly what I want on the first go-around. With Alexa, I’m constantly impressed at its abilities.

In terms of possible privacy issues, the big glaring one is the report that Apple plans to incorporate facial recognition tech into a standalone device, which sounds not only unnecessary, but the kind of thing that would cause a major headache for Apple.

Saying that people will buy anything with an Apple logo slapped on may be true to an extent, but only up to a point. Apple TV is lagging behind other set-top boxes, for instance… and I’m pretty sure that that has a big Apple logo on it. And a Siri remote, come to think of it.

Let me ask you this: are you an Amazon Echo user, and how confident are you that this is a major new transformative product? Because if Apple’s going to enter new areas, I want to see it innovate and take them seriously. No more self-proclaimed “hobbies” for me…

Killian Bell FNFKillian: I certainly don’t deny that Alexa and the Google Assistant are better. But I can’t remember the last time I asked Siri to do something and it misunderstood me. It’s gotten so much better in recent years, and while it may be missing some features, it’s much more reliable than it was. It just seems like Apple is missing out in the smart speaker category, and now that it owns Beats, doesn’t it make sense to bring the two together?

We’re not talking facial recognition here, so I’m not sure what that has to do with anything.

Apple TV might be lagging behind set-top boxes, but that’s mostly because it’s in a saturated market. There are so many alternatives that offer similar services, with the exception of the App Store. If Apple was to launch a smart speaker, it would be the only one powered by Siri that would seamlessly work alongside Macs, iOS devices, and HomeKit. That’s a major selling point.

I have used an Amazon Dot speaker, which is the more affordable model. I only used it for simple things like playing music and setting reminders, because I don’t own any smart appliances. But I did start to rely on it, and I’ve been planning to get another since my review unit was sent back.

Luke Dormehl FNFLuke: We’re talking about facial recognition, because the entire report about Apple working on a standalone Siri differentiated itself from Echo by talking about it having facial recognition tech.

Ultimately, if Apple could get the technology working — and would be happy to really get behind it — this could be a great product for users. But I’m not sure it plays to Apple’s strengths right now, and I’d hate to see the company create an “also ran” to the superior Amazon Echo. But, hey, maybe I’m wrong, and people are clamoring for Apple to release a product like this.

Let’s turn it over to readers. Do you think Apple should release a standalone Siri? Are you a regular Amazon Echo user, and is there something uniquely Apple you think the company could add to the mix? Leave your comments below. And have a good weekend.

Friday Night Fights is a series of weekly death matches between two no-mercy brawlers who will fight to the death — or at least agree to disagree — about which is better: Apple or Google, iOS or Android?