- This year's CES was full of products powered by Amazon's Alexa voice assistant.
- Apple, which usually influences the rest of the tech industry, has fallen far behind in the voice-based computing, and there's no sign it can catch up with Amazon or Google.
- Apple's HomePod speaker won't stand a chance against Amazon's rival Echo line or the other Alexa-powered devices when it belatedly launches later this year.
One of the favorite go-to talking points among Apple fans every year is how the company always seems to "win" the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas without ever showing up.
For years, the event seemed to be merely a venue for the rest of the industry to show how it was catching up to what Apple had just done or trying to keep pace with what it was expected to soon do. The most famous example was in 2007, when Apple announced the original iPhone in the middle of that year's show, sucking out all the excitement out of Vegas. But Apple showed over and over again that it could set the agenda for the biggest consumer electronics conference in the world from afar.
Those days may be over. At this year's CES, Amazon displaced Apple as the most influential company at the show with the smallest presence there.
More importantly, this past week's event made clear that Amazon is dominating one of the most important trends in tech — voice-based computing. Not only has Apple fallen behind in that area, it's too late for the iPhone maker to catch up.
At this year's CES, companies announced a slew of devices powered by Alexa, Amazon's voice assistant. There were Alexa-powered smart glasses, Alexa controls in Toyota cars, smart home gadgets that respond to Alexa commands, new Windows PCs with Alexa preinstalled, and so much more. It was nearly impossible to walk through the show floor for more than a few minutes without stumbling onto yet another Alexa-powered gizmo.
All those gadgets and announcements demonstrated how big a role voice is going to play in how we interact with technology — and just how dominant Alexa's position is. By contrast, Siri, Apple's Alexa rival, wasn't even in the conversation.
Alexa's dominance has taken years to build. Amazon's Echo smart speakers, which pioneered a new tech product and introduced Alexa to the world, gave the smart assistant a foothold inside consumers' living rooms. More recently, Amazon introduced cheaper Echo models, most notably the $50 Dot, that helped bring Alexa to the masses and allowed many to put it in multiple rooms.
The combination of a pioneering product and inexpensive prices has allowed Amazon to sell millions of smart speakers and capture two-thirds of the market, even amid growing competition from Google.
Amazon's massive market share has attracted increasing numbers of developers. Thanks to the growing number of skills, or apps, they've produced for Alexa, Amazon's assistant is constantly getting better and learning to do more things. That in turn has made Alexa attractive to device manufacturers looking to add a voice assistant to their devices, something Amazon is more than happy to help them do.
Apple's HomePod will have none of the Echo's advantages
When Apple's HomePod, powered by its Siri voice assistant, hits the market later this year, it will have none of those advantages. Apple has only opened up Siri to developers in a very limited way and it's not available for use on non-Apple devices at all. And not only will HomePod hit store shelves years after the first Echo, it will sell for a steep $349. At that price, you could buy eight Echo Dots!
Yes, it's true that Apple puts a premium price on everything. And yes, the HomePod's high price is linked to the really great sound it offers. If you only want to listen to Apple Music or control the limited number of smart-home products that work with Apple's HomeKit technology, then the HomePod will be fine.
But because of its price, you're not going to put a HomePod in every room of your house like you could with Echo Dot. Even then, I think it will have limited appeal, because you just won't be able to do as much with it as you can with an Echo smart speaker. For example, you won't get a HomePod to play songs from Spotify or Pandora just by issuing a voice command, because Apple hasn't opened Siri up to those services.
Indeed, you shouldn't expect a slew of apps for the HomePod. I don't see how Apple's going to attract developers if it doesn't give them more leeway to tap into Siri, and if the company doesn't broaden the range of devices that can use its intelligent assistant.
Apple's strategy of keeping its technology relatively closed — its software generally only runs on its own devices and the company exercises a good deal of control over how developers' apps can work on its gadgets — worked fine for the iPhone and the Mac. But in order to be successful, voice-based computing systems need to be ubiquitous and in order to do that, they need to be open.
Alexa is poised to dominate voice-based computing in large part because of Amazon's willingness to partner with a wide variety of gadget and software companies. That's never been more apparent than in the numerous Alexa-powered gadgets on display at CES.
Apple missed a big opportunity
That Apple has fallen so far behind Amazon in voice-based computing is ironic, because the iPhone maker itself helped pioneer and popularize the technology with Siri. Apple has been shipping Siri on devices since the iPhone 4S, which launched in 2011. The technology is now on hundreds of millions devices, and comes preinstalled on every iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Apple TV, and Mac the company sells.
Thanks to that, Apple had all the pieces in place to turn Siri into the dominant voice-based computing technology. But the company was slow to develop Siri and failed to realize the voice assistant's true potential. While Siri runs on lots of Apple devices, those gadgets weren't designed around voice-based interactions. Siri is just an alternate way of interacting with them, not their primary interface.
By contrast, by focusing on voice interactions and making voice central to its devices, Amazon has turned Alexa into a really powerful and compelling technology.
Apple won't just be late, it's missed the boat entirely
Apple fans like to point out that the company has a history of entering nascent markets late but succeeding anyway by developing products that far exceed their rivals and set consumer expectations. The iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, and the Apple Watch are among the most notable examples.
But it's too late in the game for Apple to reprise this history with the HomePod. Amazon's too far ahead and the HomePod and Siri are going to be too limited for Apple to knock Jeff Bezos' company off its perch.
I'm not the only one who sees this. When I asked one executive in the smart home space at CES if he thought Apple had a chance to bounce back and compete with Amazon and Google in voice computing, he chuckled dismissively.
To be sure, just because Apple's whiffed on voice computing doesn't mean it's doomed. It's not in danger of losing its lead in consumer tech. Actually, its iPhone business is still humming along nicely, and the company will likely report its best quarter ever later this month.
But thanks to Amazon's focus on Alexa and its own missteps with Siri, Apple's going to miss out on one of tech's biggest new trends. As CES showed, when it comes to voice-based computing, it's Amazon, not Apple, that's setting the standard.