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Apple's Phil Schiller makes argument for screens on voice assistant devices like Amazon Echo

Amidst rumors of a Siri home speaker, Apple SVP of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller in an interview published this week offered his thoughts on dedicated voice assistants like Amazon's Echo, saying the lack of an onboard screen is a hindrance in many situations.




Speaking with Gadgets 360 during a March trip to open Apple's App Accelerator center in Bengaluru, India, Schiller was asked to comment on Amazon Echo and Google Home, both major players in bringing virtual assistant technology to the living room.

Schiller declined to address any one device, saying, "My mother used to have a saying that if you don't have something nice to say, say nothing at all," but agreed to discuss the topic in abstract terms.

For its part, Apple "believes deeply" in voice-driven assistants, he said. Citing ongoing development of the Siri virtual assistant as proof of Apple's dedication to the technology, Schiller also noted burgeoning interest in "voice-only" assistants that lack screens. Amazon's various Echo products and Google Home both rely solely on verbal interaction to accept commands and answer user queries.

"[...] we think it's important to — that there are times when it's convenient to simply use your voice when you are not able to use the screen," Schiller said. "For example, if you're driving [and] you want Siri to work for you without having to look at the screen, that's the best thing. Or maybe you're across the room, and you want to ask Siri to change the song you were listening to — you don't have to walk over and back."

That said, a voice assistant without a screen is limited in its utility, Schiller said.

"So there's many moments where a voice assistant is really beneficial, but that doesn't mean you'd never want a screen," he said. "So the idea of not having a screen, I don't think suits many situations."

In its current form, Siri is only offered on devices with built-in screens, most recently making its way to Mac last year as part of macOS Sierra.

Schiller offered Maps interactions as an example scenario. When performing navigation operations, especially with Apple Watch and CarPlay, voice assistants can provide verbal directions, but the added benefit of a graphical map helps users better understand their surroundings.

Interestingly, Schiller cited photography as a second scenario in which screen integration benefits the end user.

"Or, for example, with photography, and one of the most popular reasons for our products is photography now, and photography requires a screen," he said. "So the idea of a device without a screen, well it's not really useful for that whole category of photos that we all share. And all the social networking apps that are now embracing photos more and more, well, it doesn't work really so great in voice-only assistants."

Siri currently supports a number of photo viewing commands, including granular controls for searching by date, location and, if facial recognition is activated, people. The virtual assistant also lets users share content via share sheets.

Moving further into the weeds, Schiller mentioned games as a third area of interest for voice assistants. While iOS games have yet to integrate Siri functionality, Schiller said he has "yet to see any voice-only games that, for me, are nearly as fun as the one that I play on my screen."

"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," he said.

Schiller's comments, while vague, provide key insight into Apple's vision for voice assistant technology and potentially future products. The company is rumored to launch its own Siri-based Echo competitor in the near future, perhaps as soon as WWDC in June. Details of the supposed device are scarce, though reports suggest a cylindrical design with concave top inspired by the Mac Pro.

KGI analyst Ming-Chi Kuo believes the Siri speaker will feature high-quality audio components, a powerful CPU equivalent to an A8 SoC or newer, AirPlay support and a custom W1 Bluetooth chip for easy pairing. Kuo made no mention of a display in his predictions.

Whether Apple intends to integrate a screen in its purported Siri home speaker is unclear, though Amazon is seemingly going that route with a rumored touchscreen Echo device.

"[...] but there is an interesting question about role of voice-only products in comparison to the products that have voice, and screen, and touch, and I think that's an interesting discussion about when is each appropriate, and what can they do in our lives," Schiller said. "I think that's interesting."

Schiller also discusses potential changes to App Store pricing and Swift uptake in the Gadget 360 interview.