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Commentary Smart Home

Why you won't see an Apple smart display anytime soon

Commentary: Because Apple.

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Google's Nest Hub offers smart display capabilities without a built-in camera.

Angela Lang/CNET

Smart displays are gobbling up smart home news headlines. Amazon introduced its new Echo Show 5 last week, and just yesterday, our own Andrew Gebhart reviewed an $80 Lenovo Smart Clock that's basically a simple, minimalistic smart display for your nightstand. If you're invested in the Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa smart home, you've got plenty of options, all well under $300.

Google's smart display, the recently renamed $130 Google Nest Hub is a camera-less powerhouse when it comes to managing your smart home and helping in the kitchen. The same goes for third-party Google Assistant-enabled smart displays like the $249 Lenovo Smart Display and the $250 JBL Link View. Google's $230 Nest Hub Max is on the way in July, with a wider screen and bigger speakers.

On the Amazon side, we've seen two generations of the $230 Echo Show and its smaller bedside companion, the $130 Echo Spot. The upcoming Echo Show 5, a simpler sibling of the larger Echo Show, is slated to hit shelves this month for just $90. Facebook's $200 Portal and $350 Portal Plus also offer Alexa integration.

How many smart displays have we seen from Apple for HomeKit and Siri?

Zero. 

When it comes to innovating in the smart home, Apple has been slower than its competitors. The company's traditional approach: letting another brand test the waters, then catching up a year or two later with its own, Apple-y take on devices they're certain we want, hasn't materialized with the smart home. Siri was one of the early mainstream voice assistants, and it hasn't kept up with its competition, a fact that became very apparent when Apple's HomePod smart speaker launched in 2018. 

By now, I'm used to Apple's slow approach to hardware in the smart home, but I was still disappointed at the underwhelming announcements centered around the HomePod and the Home app at WWDC. A HomePod Mini would have been a shock, yes, but if we didn't get that, what are the chances we'll ever get a smart display from Tim Cook and company?  

I think the answer lies partly in the iPad. It's an exceptionally capable tablet (especially in the Pro iterations), that already includes the Home app and can act as your HomeKit hub if you don't have a HomePod or an Apple TV. Siri comes along for the ride on the iPad as well, and it's portable, something smart displays can't offer.

Those are plenty of good reasons to prefer an iPad over a smart display, not taking into account the Apple Pencil and all the creative capabilities high-end iPads support or the fact that iPad apps can now make their way over to Macs thanks to the new macOS Catalina and Apple's project Catalyst

The iPad is also more expensive. You'll spend $329 for the most affordable iPad, the 9.7-inch, 32GB model, or roughly $200 more than a Nest Home Hub.

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The 2018 iPad Pro comes with a new all-screen design, Face ID and Apple Pencil.

Óscar Gutiérrez/CNET

It also doesn't help that the market statistics for Apple's share of the smart home are as grim as ever. 

Data shows Apple with a slim 6% of the smart speaker market in 2018. Google and Amazon are so far ahead when it comes to smart speakers and displays, that Apple's catch up efforts would have to produce remarkably innovative hardware to be worth it. 

Avi Greengart, Founder and Lead Analyst at Techsponential put it this way:

Apple did make some minor announcements around HomePod, so it is clear Apple has not completely forgotten about the product category. However, the HomePod really looks and acts like an Apple Music speaker with Siri as an input method, not a Siri-powered home device that also plays music. For Apple to properly compete with the Echo and Home, first it would need to expand the general capabilities of Siri and HomePod. Only then could it reasonably build a version with a display. However, if Apple did do a smart display, it could differentiate it with Apple TV capabilities and iOS apps. Google and Amazon smart displays support lots of skills -- thousands in the Echo's case -- but relatively few of them are designed specifically for the screen.

Apple has demonstrated its intention to improve Siri, showing off less robotic-sounding speech on stage at WWDC this week, and multiuser voice recognition for HomePod. Even without those updates, Siri is a relatively competent voice assistant, reliably executing most basic commands like playing music, making phone calls and responding to specific smart home controls, but the conversational aspect isn't as intuitive as that of Google Assistant and Alexa. That matters for smart speakers and smart displays, whether you're asking the assistant to pull up specific visual information, or when one of your kids asks it a random trivia question.

Even though Apple's computing and phone offerings are beautifully-designed, privacy-focused and reliable, I still can't recommend diving into the HomeKit smart home to anyone who wants an easy, affordable experience. 

Smart displays aren't for everyone, but for those of us who want that experience on our kitchen counter helping with recipes or on our nightstand controlling our thermostats and lights, an iPad is the closest thing you'll get right now, and there's no indication you'll see an alternative from Apple any time soon. 

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Apple iPad 2018 (space gray, 32GB)
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