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Apple is working on its own competitor to the Amazon Echo, according to a number of rumors, with the creation of an audio device that will allow users to make Siri queries without directly interacting with any other Apple devices. 

The proposed device would in theory compete directly against the aforementioned Echo, as well as Google Home, hardware Apple is likely to emulate with its own offering. In theory, this would provide more opportunities for Apple customers to interact with the assistant, rather than use competing systems, keeping users within the Apple ecosystem. 

Some reports have gone against the rumors, suggesting Apple won't produce an Echo-like speaker, with Apple supposedly looking to make Siri an "omnipresent AI assistant across devices" instead of a central hub. 

Current speculation has Apple introducing the device at WWDC on June 5, alongside potential updates to Siri that will arrive on iPhones and other hardware in the future. KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo believes there to be a more than 50 percent chance of a WWDC announcement for the device. 

Beats Pill+ Portable Speaker Beats Pill+ Portable Speaker

Physical Design

Based on the Google and Amazon competition, it is likely the proposed device would take the form of a network-connected speaker with a microphone array.

The nearest product to the proposed device currently offered by Apple is the Beats Pill range of speakers. While not an Apple-branded product, it is plausible for Apple to borrow aspects of Beats' designs for its own intelligent speaker. 

While it is unclear if it will be a portable device, like some items from Beats' speaker range, it is likely to be built as a staticly-located speaker. Due to its presumably audio-heavy interface, managing network connectivity while on the move could be considered a challenge for a portable version. 

A patent granted to Apple on May 16 reveal it has thought about speaker designs. While the patent for an "Electronic device with radially deployed components" basically covers how to mount multiple components to a cylindrical container, the illustrations show a standing speaker similar in concept to Amazon's Echo, but with buttons and connectors on the side, rather than the top. 

The patent illustrations are relatively simple, and are probably not a great indicator for Apple's plans, but it does suggest the company has considered how to add controls and other components to the final speaker design. 

A leak from Sonny Dickson in late April claims Apple is "currently finalizing" designs for the speaker, which is "expected to be marketed as a Siri/AirPlay device." The hardware could use some form of Beats technology, Dickson claims, and will run a variant of iOS. 

As for the appearance, Dickson suggests it will have a concave top that will house physical controls, a similar button positioning to the Echo range.Boasting "Mac Pro style," it is claimed it will also have a speaker mesh portion covering the body of the device, similar to the UE Boom Bluetooth speaker sold in Apple retail stores. 

Dickson has been accurate in the past for some predictions such as the revamped lockscreen interface in iOS 10. 

On May 1, KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo issued a note to investors speculating that the device will use one woofer and seven tweeters for a rich sound. Inside will be a custom ARM processor similar in power to the A8 CPU, used in the iPhone 6. 

A later message from Kuo on May 13 advises the device will have some form of dedicated touch panel for controls. It is unclear if this means a dynamic screen that can provide visual feedback, or a simpler panel.  

Apple's custom W1 chip, which handles the Bluetooth connectivity in the company's AirPods, will allow other wireless accessories to connect to the Siri device automatically, so long as they are logged into the same iCloud account. Continuing on media playback, Kuo also believes that support for AirPlay in the device for music streaming will help Apple quickly gain a footing in the market, capitalizing on the extensive music services available to its users. 

It is unclear if Apple's device will incorporate a display, similar to the Echo Show announced by Amazon, or if it will continue the trend of using a voice-based interface.

In comments made earlier this year, Apple SVP of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller made the case to include a screen in such devices. While voice-driven assistants would be useful for times when you cannot use a display, such as driving or commands over a distance, a voice assistant without a screen is limited in utility in other situations, like showing maps for navigation, or displaying photographs. 

 

Siri

A core component to the device will be Siri. Much like Alexa on Amazon's Echo device range, the device should allow for users to invoke Siri by verbal commands alone, and to receive a spoken response. 

It is believed that Apple will be introducing a number of new features to Siri at WWDC, claimed DigiTimes in January, though the report stopped short of stating what features to expect. 

Due to the high reliance on verbal communication, any changes to Siri will make a major impact on the device's chances of being a success at launch. 

Siri has been criticised in the past for providing relatively limited functionality compared to its main competition, especially when considering contextual queries. For example, Google Assistant, the latest iteration of Google's own tool, is capable of understanding follow-up questions, like "Who is the U.S. President?" followed by "How old is he?"

Samsung has also made an effort to join the digital assistant market, with its own Bixby assistant included in the Galaxy S8. Bixby is thought to be based on technology by Viv Labs, a firm created by former Apple employees and Siri co-founders Dag Kittlaus, Adam Cheyer, and Chris Bringham, and acquired by Samsung in October 2016. 

Viv's biggest technological advantage over Siri was its third-party integration, which effectively allowed the user to easily perform transactions or use third-party services with verbal commands. 

Apple has not rested on its laurels with Siri, investing in its own machine learning work as well as acquiring firms in the AI and language processing fields, such as Perceptio, VocalIQ, and Turi. Any work from these investments are likely to make a big impact to the way Siri operates, improving the assistant across the Apple ecosystem of hardware. 

The higher level of competition in the digital assistant field is likely to drive Apple to make Siri the best assistant the company can. While this will generally focus on improving the experience for iOS users, especially for the "iPhone 8" this fall, it is highly likely any progress made there will also benefit Siri on the speaker. 

 

Name

So far, none of the rumors or leaks have suggested a name for the supposed device, though it is apparently known internally by the codename "B238."

Despite being the main way of interacting with the speaker, it is unlikely that Apple will employ "Siri" in the name. Since Siri is its own multi-platform service, Apple will probably try to keep the branding of the new hardware different, if only to separate the two brands. 

 

Amazon's lineup of Alexa-enabled devices Amazon's lineup of Alexa-enabled devices

Pricing and Availability

KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo wrote in April the specifications of the proposed device will push the price higher than the Amazon equivalent. It will apparently be positioned for the high-end market, with a better entertainment experience and superior sound quality qualifying the potentially increased cost compared to its rivals. 

For reference, Amazon sells the Echo for $180 and the Echo Dot for $50. The Google Home costs $129. 

Kuo also believes Apple could ship as many as 12 million units of the device over the first year of availability. If it proves to be popular, Kuo suggests Apple could sell extended models of the device, echoing the Echo lineup from Amazon. 

 

Production by Inventec

A report from the Economic Daily News on May 3 claims Inventec has been selected by Apple to produce the rumored speaker. Supply chain reports from the Chinese publication claim Inventec is involved, but it is unclear if the Taiwanese firm is being used for component production or device assembly. 

Inventec has a history with Apple, working for the Cupertino iPhone producer since the iPod. The firm is also currently producing another Apple audio product, with its facilities used to manufacture AirPods

If the report is true, this means that Apple's primary assembler, Foxconn, hasn't been selected to build the device. Foxconn is already the producer of one of the supposed device's competitors, the Amazon Echo. 

 

The Competition

The rumored Apple device will be entering a market against strong competition from other tech companies, with each following the same pattern of an internet-connected speaker that uses the company's own virtual assistant to interpret vocal commands. While similar, there are still differences to be found with each product. 

Amazon

The first to go on sale, the Amazon Echo set the tone for products in the category, with a hands-free speaker using seven microphones and beam forming technology to hear the user wherever they are in the room, even with music playing in the background. 

Core to the system is Alexa, Apple's digital assistant, which allowed users to perform many typical verbal commands. Over time, Alexa has been updated to provide verbal control of smart home devices, connects to various third-party services, and can also be interacted with via a free app for most mobile devices. 

Since the creation of the original, Amazon has moved to provide a more compact version called the Echo Dot and the portable Amazon Tap, though the latter does not use the Echo branding due to requiring users to tap a button to trigger Alexa instead of using verbal prompts. Another model has also been introduced, with the camera-equipped Echo Look meant to help users refine their clothing style. 

Amazon has also announced the launch of the Echo Show, a version of the Echo that uses a display to show videos, images, perform video calls, and other visual-based interactions. Shipping in July, the Echo Show will be Amazon's most expensive model in the range, priced at $230. 

Amazon is also keen to push third-party device producers to use its technology in their products, including the far-field microphone array system and voice recognition algorithms. It is also possible to buy third-party hardware that offers Alexa interactivity without the use of an Echo-family device, such as the Nucleus Anywhere intercom.

While it could be argued that Amazon has the benefits of being first-to-market and establishing itself before its competitors, Amazon does lose out on being able to provide as great an ecosystem as its rivals. Aside from Amazon's failed smartphone venture, you can access Alexa on iOS and Android devices, but since it is via a third-party app, it isn't as integrated into the smartphone software as Siri or Google Voice Search, meaning users are less likely to use it outside the home. 

Google

Originally revealed at Google I/O 2016, the Google Home moves away from Amazon's cylindrical styling to something shorter and wider. The base color scheme is white and grey, but the lower speaker grille can be replaced with another, different colored shell. 

Able to support multiple units in the same house, the Home can be used to control other devices, including the Chromecast range, and can be used to play music as a network-connected speaker. It also boasts smart home credentials, with it able to work with the Philips Hue lights range, Wemo products, and Nest devices, among others. 

As is to be expected, users will interact with Google Assistant, the search firm's latest iteration of digital assistant, which is also being slowly rolled out to smartphones. It is likely users will take to this assistant, if only because it can access the same services and respond to the same queries as the smartphone version they're likely to be used to commanding. 

Due to the device only being available on the market for a relatively short period of time, the Google Home's only real issue at the moment is expanding its user base. Unlike the extremely cheap Chromecast, the more expensive Google Home will have a tougher time finding customers, an issue exaccerbated by Google's relatively slow rollout of the hardware into new markets. 

Microsoft and Harman Kardon

The Invoke is Microsoft's attempt to take on Google and Amazon, but unlike its tech rivals, it has partnered with speaker specialists Harman Kardon to create the device. Erring towards Amazon's Echo design, the Invoke is a tall cylinder, tapering towards the top, and features a speaker grille that takes up most of the space on the sides of the device. 

This device uses similar technology to its rivals, including seven far-field microphones, but will use three woofers, three tweeters, and two passive radiators for a superior sound output. Microsoft's digital assistant Cortana will provide the voice-based interactivity for the Invoke, which will offer a similar set of commands to its rivals, though it is unclear what smart home devices will be controllable from it. 

Much like Google's use of Google Assistant, the use of Cortana in the Invoke does give Microsoft the benefit of Windows PC users, and to a lesser extent Windows Phone owners, already having encountered it before. Cortana's Notebook, its storage of personal details that it uses to answer some queries, could find a use here, potentially personalizing the Invoke's results a lot more than the Google and Amazon assistants. 

One notable addition is native hands-free calling through Skype, allowing users to hold conversations without having to pull out their smartphone or use a computer. The other devices on the market do not offer this functionality, though it is entirely possible for this to be added in a software update in the future. 

As Microsoft will be shipping the Invoke in the U.S. this fall, it is unclear exactly how potential users will take to the device. Considering Apple's potential announcement of its hardware at WWDC, it is possible that Microsoft's release for the Invoke could be negatively affected by the rumored Cupertino speaker. 

 

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